Homeless S. Africans say there’s no room for them at World Cup; officials deny pressuring them

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Homeless S. Africans complain ahead of World Cup

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Homeless South Africans complained they were being forced from the streets of Cape Town to make way for a host of star-studded, glamorous events surrounding next year’s World Cup tournament.

Isaac Lewis, 41, said Thursday that police have arrested him for loitering six times in the past month. Before that, Lewis said police mostly left him alone. He said he’s been homeless for most of his life.

Police harassment “is increasing, everyday it’s increasing,” he said. “It’s because they want to make a good impression for the foreigners coming. We are like insects to them, or flies.”

Football officials and a host of international celebrities descended on the seaside city ahead of Friday’s gala tournament draw.

Lewis spoke on the eve of the draw ceremony, which was to include Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a recorded address by Nelson Mandela, and a street concert. South Africa, where more than a quarter of the work force is unemployed and millions live in poverty, is hoping for an economic boost from the hundreds of thousands of tourists expected to the World Cup.

Lesley de Rueck, Cape Town’s director of 2010 operations, denied the city was pressuring the homeless for the World Cup’s sake. Felicity Purchase, a city councilwoman and member of a mayoral committee on economic development and tourism, said that the city wanted to get people off the streets for their own good as well as to keep the city “tidy.”

Linzi Thomas, who founded a project to help street children and the homeless, was convinced Friday’s draw ceremony and next year’s tournament are the reasons that local authorities have been pressuring the homeless in recent months to move off the streets and into settlements like Blikkiesdorp, a grim camp on the outskirts of Cape Town.

Ziettha Meyer, 29, said she was taken off the streets and brought to Blikkiesdorp by a social worker who threatened to throw her in jail if she didn’t go.

“She just came and dropped us here like we were a bunch of chickens,” she said. “We didn’t have a choice.”

Shamielh Du Toit, 33, said she moved to Blikkiesdorp under similar circumstances six months ago.

“They came to us and said, ‘people you must move away from here because we are cleaning up for the World Cup,’” she said.

Du Toit said the nearest train station to her shack is a 30-minute walk. She said can’t afford the $2 roundtrip fare to Cape Town, so she can’t look for work in the city. When she was living on the streets of Cape Town, she said she worked in a convenience store, earning about $7 a day.

“For me, always it was better on the streets,” she said. “At least you can see people around you, and feel that you’re alive,” she said. She said crime and drug use are rife in Blikkiesdorp, and that she was afraid to leave her shack at night.

Blikkiesdorp’s corrugated tin shacks, with a toilet and tap for every four dwellings, stretch in neat, sterile rows. The dusty settlement was created in 2008 to house 650 people evicted from buildings they had been illegally occupying, but now accommodates 1,452 families, according to Cape Town spokesman Kylie Hatton.

Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato visited the site in mid-November following complaints by residents about the lack of basic services. Du Toit said he didn’t enter because a crowd gathered at the front gate and jeered at him.

City spokeswoman Hatton said that Blikkiesdorp is designed as an emergency haven for those forced from their homes by evictions, floods or fires.

“It’s not a forced relocation. It’s completely voluntary … we don’t target homeless people,” Hatton said.

Hatton said that although the site is intended to be temporary, the lack of available housing keeps the city from putting a limit on how long people stay before being moved to better accommodation. She added that residents are encouraged to put their names on the city’s housing waiting list, which has 300,000 people on it, although the need is estimated at 400,000.

Mansoor Mohamed, executive director for social development and tourism, said that while informal traders would be allowed to sell their goods during the June 11-July 11 World Cup, “illegal hawking” at traffic lights will be stopped.

According to Jason Brickhill of the Legal Resources Center, an independent human rights group based in Johannesburg, homeless South Africans in Pretoria and Johannesburg, two of the other cities where the tournament will be staged, are also being arrested by police for loitering, and illegal evictions are on the increase.

“In my mind it’s linked to the World Cup,” Brickhill said. “There has been talk of the need to clean up the streets, where the dirt is the people.”

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