“You have to have good eyes for this,” Carin Gelderbloem says as she takes slow, small steps across Cape Town’s Greenmarket Square, her eyes fixed firmly on the ground. It is shortly after 6pm and Gelderbloem is doing what she does most evenings, scanning the market’s cobblestone paving for beads dropped by vendors during their day’s trade.
It usually takes her around half an hour before she walks away with “about a half a bankie of all kinds of beads”. With these she will make necklaces, earrings and wristbands, selling them for around R10 or R15. She uses the money she earns to feed herself and, more importantly, given the Mother City’s bracingly cold winter months, pay a nightly bribe of R30 to security guards at a nearby building to let her and her partner, Rameez Kemp, sleep in one of the building’s empty rooms.
It wasn’t always this way for Gelderbloem, who is the first applicant in a groundbreaking case in which seven of the city’s homeless people are taking the City of Cape Town to the high court. They are challenging the City’s controversial decision in July to impose fines on homeless people.
Gelderbloem has been homeless for some time. But in September last year, the City’s security officials confiscated her and her partner’s belongings and forced them out of the Company’s Garden, one of the city centre’s most popular tourist attractions.
Gelderbloem and Kemp slept each night “for about a year” in an area no bigger than 1.5m² close to the entrance of the Garden, she says pointing out the spot. “This was my mansion.” Their mansion was little more than a sheet of plastic (“that was our roof”) and a piece of cardboard (“our mattress”).
“You know, ne, if we knew people were being robbed in the Garden, we used to tell people not to go in. That they must turn back. We used to assist people. And we used to keep this place spotless. Spotless. Yet we were the first people that was chucked out here,” she says.
“You know, all the warm months, they have no problem with us being there. In summer months, you are free. They don’t do you no harm. But when it comes to winter time, and this is every flippin’ year, they want to push you around. And it’s ice cold. Winter time … It’s like they want you out in the cold.
“All I can tell you is never have I experienced such cruelty. You know, from your own people. You understand? They speak to us like we are nothing, man. Even the cops … Yoh! The cops are the people who believe we have no rights at all. They say it like it is: Watter menseregte het julle (What human rights do you have)?”
Taking the City to court
The constant harassment by the City’s security officials eventually culminated in all her belongings being confiscated. “My clothes, my ID, bank card, everything.” This pushed her, in April this year, to approach the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).
“I want them [the SAHRC] to imprint in the heads of all these people who are in charge that we are people, man. We are people. We are humans and, like them, we have rights, too. We have the right to have that plastic over our heads to protect us from the rain and cold. We have the right to have that cardboard under us to keep us warm from the coldness of the ground,” she said, when first speaking to New Frame in July.
A few days later, frustrated with months of getting no response from the commission, Gelderbloem made her way, along with approximately 30 other people, to an upstairs room at Roeland Street-based organisation The Hope Exchange, which offers assistance to the city centre’s homeless communities.
“I wasn’t invited to this meeting, but I heard about it so I am just coming,” she says. In the cramped room, the 49-year-old is the only presently homeless person among non-governmental organisation (NGO) representatives, a smattering of political party-affiliated folk and City of Cape Town officials. The meeting – to discuss a way to deal with the city’s fining of homeless people – soon turns to the lack of adequate shelter facilities. Raising her hand to speak, Gelderbloem says she and many other homeless women she knows of “don’t want to go to shelters”.
“I personally was sexually harassed in a shelter. And I am not the only one. That’s why I will never go to a shelter … I wasn’t the only person,” she says, unsuccessfully trying to hold back her tears. “That’s why you will find more females sleeping outside. Because we are the ones being targeted in shelters.”
Following this meeting, the Community Chest, another NGO, held another, with the aim of finding a way to deal with the fining of homeless people from a legal perspective. Lucien Lewin was in attendance and, by the end of the meeting, had offered his skills as a lawyer.
“The Community Chest then put me in touch with The Hope Exchange. And that is how I met Carin and everybody else,” says Lewin, who works for the firm Dingley Marshall and now represents the seven homeless people – Gelderbloem, Emily Smith, Vuyo Mbozi, Beulah Meyer, Natasha Persent, Xolani Siboxo and Patricia Geyser – in the high court bid to challenge the City.
“There are two issues here,” says Lewin. “One is a long-term issue, which is about the constitutionality of the City of Cape Town and their officials, specifically, and the manner in which they have been treating homeless people – ostensibly in terms of their interpretation of the bylaws regulating public nuisance and that kind of thing.
“So people like Carin, for example, are fined and told that they were dumping. But these are the things she used to protect herself from the elements. And they confiscated all of that. So the question is, is that kind of conduct constitutional? So what we’d like to do is challenge the interpretation of the bylaws by the City of Cape Town.”
Infringing on human rights
Lewin adds that while they embark on this challenge, which “will not be a short process”, there are concerns that homeless people’s “rights will continue being infringed”.
“They will continue confiscating people’s personal property. They will continue taking away things that protect people from the elements. So what we did was launch an urgent application for an interim interdict for the City not to confiscate the clients’ property, harassing and victimising our clients.”
A few days before the high court hearing, Gelderbloem is hopeful. “I can tell you one thing about this man [Lewin], his word is his bond. He is going to fight until the end for us,” she says. “And I can tell you, ne, that kind of thing makes you feel like a person. That someone would go the extra mile for a homeless person … Now, law enforcement or whoever can tell me every day, ‘Watter human rights het jy?’, but just knowing that there are people that will go the extra mile for you. … It reminds you that you have value. You’re a person.”
On 2 September 2019, the high court hearing was postponed following a request by the City of Cape Town’s attorneys. The postpostment was agreed on by both parties on condition that the City “desist and refrain from”, among others, harassing the applicants or confiscating their belongings.
Peter Solomon, director of The Hope Exchange, sees the agreement as “a positive development and a step in the right direction”.
Leaving the court, Gelderbloem simply says: “I’m very happy.”
A hopeful future
Later that evening, she is back at Greenmarket Square, scouring, as she does, for beads. But this time her mood is altogether more buoyant. Not only has she been granted a reprieve from constant harassment by City officials, but earlier that afternoon she was also offered a job.
“There is a woman who always walks her dog in the Company’s Garden. That dog became my friend and that woman always looked out for me. So she spoke to her manager at the company she works for and they are going to create a position for me. They said they are going to pay me enough. I will be able to rent a room of my own,” she says, repeating it, excitedly: “A room of my own.”
“I’m telling you this today,” she adds. “I’m not going to become an old person on the street. Somehow or the other I’m going to work something out. I want a life, still. I’m going to get this job and go on with my jewellery and see how far it brings me. I’m not going to accept things like this and just fade away.”
It’s been a months-long journey for Gelderbloem in her attempt “to be treated like a human”. And it might be many more months until her case is concluded to her satisfaction, if at all. But for now, she has the prospect of a job – “I have to meet them next Tuesday, again” – a roof over her head and, of course, the beads.