Across the road from Johannesburg’s new R370 million council chambers, there lives a community of waste-pickers and other displaced people.
The contrast, shocking to sensitive viewers, leaves hardened Joburgers unmoved.
Every suburb, even Saxonwold, has its underclass. Egoli is a magnet, drawing people from across the country and the rest of Africa.
Parks Tau, under whose administration the chambers were commissioned, last year said 10 000 people flock to Joburg monthly. Mayor Herman Mashaba has also noted the influx.
Well, Jesus did say the poor will always be with us. Figures suggest this will be especially true for Johannesburg. Here’s why.
The DA-led municipal government inherited a housing backlog of at least 300 000 units, which cannot be resolved without exceptional funding. Yet the ANC provincial government has slashed Joburg’s housing grant to R145 million, less than half the R411 million the city received at the start of 2016.
Further pressure on the city’s finances comes from court rulings which make it difficult to evict people without providing alternative accommodation. So the converging influences are: more people, less money, and more obligations for the City. And unemployment among Johannesburg’s youth is more than 31%.
Egoli’s streets are not paved with gold. Life is tough for “vagrants”, especially in winter. And yet these hardy souls keep arriving.
No one has accurate statistics about how many displaced people are living in Johannesburg’s public open spaces: on pavements, under bridges, in parks, and along our spruits. But their plight is fertile ground for political opportunists who encourage land invasions, chanting, “Expropriation without compensation”.
Sloganeers have simple solutions. So too do residents, who are divided. One side says apply the law, chase these people away, lock them up, or deport them, just get them out of sight. At the other extreme are gentle souls who want to feed, clothe and accommodate the needy.
None of these approaches is practical. The Johannesburg Metro Police Department carries out regular raids but displaced people return to the same spot, unless it is securely fenced. And you can’t fence every park, pavement, etc.
If you used all the prison and police cells, and shelters in Joburg, the total accommodation would not be enough. And magistrates seldom jail vagrants anyway. This isn’t Zimbabwe.
Of course, residents have a right to demand by-law enforcement. Yet difficulties cited above are compounded by inefficiency, corruption and lack of will at national and provincial level. Home affairs and the SA Police Service are not doing their jobs.
Blessed are those who offer food, clothing, and succour to displaced people. However, when this is done in areas without shelter and ablution facilities, it encourages recipients to break the by-laws which others hold dear.
There is no quick solution. Johannesburg is not alone. “Homelessness” is a growing problem worldwide. Whether crossing the Rio Grande, the Mediterranean, or any other borders, great tides of humanity are displaced.
The poor cannot be wished away. We need constructive policies which, in addition to promoting economic growth, should include proper management of more facilities, such as shelters. Spread judiciously throughout Johannesburg, these would symbolise a well-managed city that cares.