In a country beset by housing shortages and illegal evictions, the question of homelessness often doesn't make it into national conversations. On Friday, DA ward councillor Shayne Ramsay changed that when she posted a Facebook update on "vagrancy in Sea Point" and called on local residents to work together to get homeless people in the area — who she described as "criminals", "mentally ill" or "social outcasts" — off the streets.
This, she said, could be achieved by calling law enforcement to report indecent public behaviour or trespassing. She also said that as "our garbage bins are treated like buffet tables" people should put their bins out only when they heard the garbage trucks in the vicinity, remove all recyclable waste from bins, and to compost uncooked biodegradable food using home composters.
Furthermore, our garbage bins often contain perfectly edible food. Please don't put your bins out the night before collection. If you can't do it yourself, try to organize with your neighbours to put your bins out only when you hear the truck in the vicinity.Shayne Ramsay
Ramsay also said that there was not much the police service could do "given that we have such a liberal constitution".
She then called on residents to join in a "March Against Grime" during which people, dressed in white "to stand out in the dark and in the theme of cleanliness" would walk along the promenade until 9pm, "kindly asking anyone planning on sleeping overnight, to move along".
Her remarks were swiftly repudiated on social media.
Author and radio presenter Eusebius McKaiser wrote on Facebook that Ramsay had "paraded her disgusting attitude towards homeless and hungry people ... before deleting it, and then offering a cheap apology after already revealing her shockingly callous attitude". He also criticised DA leaders, including Mmusi Maimane and Cape Town city mayor Patricia De Lille for failing to take a stronger position on the issue.
(De Lille had earlier tweeted that Ramsay's post had not been sanctioned by the city and that City of Cape Town speaker Dirk Smit was looking into the matter. "We are a caring City that believes in helping the homeless," read one of her tweets.)
Writing in the Daily Maverick, commenter Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar said "It is not enough for us to be outraged and we must make sure that this elected official is held accountable. Tragically, the views of people like Shayne have been allowed to take root despite our past history of displacement, prejudice, victimisation, stigmatisation and fear."
It is not enough for us to be outraged and we must make sure that this elected official is held accountable. Tragically, the views of people like Shayne have been allowed to take root despite our past history of displacement, prejudice, victimisation, stigmatisation and fear.Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar
A change.org petition has urged the DA to "step in and act as servants of the people and not be patsies of the rich, the entitled, and the privileged".
"Shelters are woefully ill-equipped to deal with the sheer numbers of homeless and destitute people on the streets. Our so-called 'liberal constitution' was designed with exactly this in mind — to protect the vulnerable from rich, entitled, privileged people who seek to aggravate the abuses faced by the marginalized," reads the petition.
Meanwhile, according to EWN, the ANC in the Western Cape meanwhile called for Ramsay's immediate suspension, with its provincial spokesperson Yonela Diko saying, "The loose categorisation of South Africans as 'mentally retarded' and 'social outcasts' just because they are homeless is not only ignorant but dangerous."
Ramsay has since deleted the Facebook post and offered an apology, saying "I unreservedly apologise to everyone I offended, particularly the homeless South Africans in Cape Town."
But many took a dim view of her turnaround. "So you got yelled at and had a rapid change of heart?" read one response. Another commenter said: "An apology is insufficient for such comments — they are disgraceful."
The question of homelessness in South Africa is not one that is easily resolved. The Human Sciences Research Council describes homelessness as a "complex phenomenon" and notes that "a targeted intervention alone, such as the provision of housing, does not meet the needs of all those who are homeless". Certainly, ignoring people's basic dignity and right to freedom of movement does nothing to resolve the challenges faced by those who are forced to live on the street.