Lawyers body challenges Cape Town's 'apartheid style' by-laws

A group of lawyers are tackling the City of Cape Town after it issued an instruction that homeless people should be fined for blocking the pavements.
A group of lawyers are tackling the City of Cape Town after it issued an instruction that homeless people should be fined for blocking the pavements.
Image: Alaister Russell

The National Association of Democratic Lawyers (Nadel) is challenging in court the constitutionality of the "apartheid style" by-laws the City of Cape Town seeks to force homeless people off the pavements or face paying a fine.

Nadel has accused the city of  introducing the law in a veil of secrecy. However, the city's mayoral committee member for safety JP Smith said the controversial  laws were introduced following complaints by residents about homeless people blocking pavements.

He said that the city had made accommodation available for the homeless but some “have elected to be” on the streets.

But Nadel is adamant the by-laws were specifically targeted at poor people.

“Nadel is set to oppose the City of Cape Town by-laws that criminalise and penalise poor and homeless people,” said the organisation’s deputy secretary Ugeshnee Naicker.

“25 years into democracy, it is astounding that a municipality in South Africa would adopt such tyrannical and oppressive by-laws that target the most vulnerable and poor in our society.”

The by-law prohibits people from erecting a shelter, sleeping overnight in certain areas, obstructing pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk or leaving goods or lighting fires in a public space.

If found guilty, the offender could be fined anything between R300 and R1,500.

According to Naicker, the SA Human Rights Commission has received over 100 complaints regarding the impact this decision has had on the homeless people.

“The poor have become the target of these by-laws, which are reminiscent of tyrannical colonial and apartheid style attacks on the most vulnerable people in society. These by-laws, which have lost their context and place in a democratic constitutional society like South Africa, affect street vendors, street children, beggars and homeless people,” said Naicker.

SAHRC in Cape Town will join Nadel in their court challenge. Its commissioner Chris Nissen said that they want to test the constitutionality of the by-law.

He said he got concerned after seeing the city confiscating homeless people belonging and dumping them.

“People came to us and complain about them being harassed and also I personally saw them taking people’s stuff, load it on and go dump it somewhere else. And that was a concern.

“Then of course two weeks ago they started issuing fines to people but they didn’t do it on the basis of a by-law on homeless people. They used another by-law on noise and litter pollution. They [are] issuing fines for littering and noise pollution. So it’s an indirect targeting of homeless people,” said Nissen.

He said he was concerned that concerned that the city was now criminalising poverty.

“Why are we then even fining a poor person who can’t even have bread or a house? Has to beg for bread daily. [Now] they have to pay R300 and a R1,000. Are you then not criminalising the poor?”

EFF leader Julius Malema also raised concerns but said the party was not shocked as the DA had no interests of the poor people at heart.

“We don’t think that will happen because those black people on the pavements, even if you fine them they can’t afford to pay. Even if they don’t pay what else are you going to do? You can’t take property from them, you can’t do anything, they don’t have income, they don’t have a home. So you can’t do anything.

“So it’s actually an extreme stupid to make but it is just telling you how they feel about black people,” Malema said.

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