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OPINION: Using Covid-19 to score political points is shameful

11 April 2020 - 12:03 By Dan Plato
Cape Town mayor Dan Plato at the Strandfontein lockdown camp for the homeless on April 9 2020, flanked by mayoral committee members Zahid Badroodien, left, and JP Smith.
Cape Town mayor Dan Plato at the Strandfontein lockdown camp for the homeless on April 9 2020, flanked by mayoral committee members Zahid Badroodien, left, and JP Smith.
Image: GroundUp/Ashraf Hendricks

As the last remaining major metro run by the DA, it is no surprise that the City of Cape Town has become the epicentre for opportunistic attacks.

The latest example is the Strandfontein emergency accommodation site for the homeless of Cape Town.

Woefully misguided claims like the totally untrue assertion that the site is a “concentration camp” have bounced back and forth through the media and social media landscape.

The claim just happened to be made by a member of another political party, who was conveniently not wearing any party colours for the TV interview. That planted comment has now attached itself to all the commentary by the politically-aligned civic organisations operating in the city.

Those who haven’t even set foot on the site have now accused the DA of “dumping the homeless on the outskirts of Cape Town”. We have been accused of not feeding them, holding them against their will — even shooting at them. All of this is false.

It is deeply unfortunate that disinformation can so easily be magnified and shared for political advantage at a time of national crisis. Spreading misinformation during this national crisis is, in fact, a crime in terms of the emergency regulations.

We are therefore analysing all the media reports to lay charges in terms of these allegations, wherever perpetrators are identifiable.

The entrance to the Strandfontein lockdown camp for the homeless, which is being operated by four non-government organisations appointed by the City of Cape Town.
The entrance to the Strandfontein lockdown camp for the homeless, which is being operated by four non-government organisations appointed by the City of Cape Town.
Image: GroundUp/Ashraf Hendricks

I would like to unpack some of the above claims.

First, the site was set up under the instruction of the national disaster regulations published by the national government. The same regulations apply to the other sites that we have set up, which include the one at Culemborg in the Cape Town CBD where 500 homeless are accommodated.

We have had to act quickly in terms of these regulations, and in this unprecedented time we have had to adapt our plans to keep up with the requirements expected of municipalities.

Section 11D of the Covid-19 national disaster regulations published ahead of the lockdown states:

(1) For the period of the declaration of a lockdown, a person refusing to be evacuated from any place subject to lockdown, may be evacuated by an enforcement officer to a temporary shelter, if such action is necessary for the preservation of life.

(2) The state shall identify — (a) temporary shelters that meet the necessary hygiene standards for homeless people; and (b) temporary sites for quarantine and self-isolation that meet the necessary hygiene standards for people who cannot isolate or quarantine in their homes.

A volunteer checks on the health of one of the homeless people living at the Strandfontein lockdown camp in Cape Town.
A volunteer checks on the health of one of the homeless people living at the Strandfontein lockdown camp in Cape Town.
Image: Esa Alexander

After overseeing the initial set-up of the site, I returned this week to inspect the various services available and to ensure that our homeless community is well taken care of while at this facility.

We are providing medical services, shelter, blankets, meals, ablution and shower facilities. When entering the site, homeless people are screened by medical professionals for Covid-19 and tuberculosis (TB), while social workers assess mental and substance abuse concerns so that we can respond appropriately to their medical and psychosocial needs.

While interacting with the homeless I heard several reports of medical assistance that they were grateful for, as they had not tried to access these services while living on the street. Those who I had spoken to had received antidepressants, blood pressure medication, and pain relief medication.

Residents of the Strandfontein lockdown camp for the homeless in Cape Town eat while waiting for medical consultations.
Residents of the Strandfontein lockdown camp for the homeless in Cape Town eat while waiting for medical consultations.
Image: Esa Alexander

Some complained that the food was not what they wanted, while others said they were very happy with the three meals a day and fruit and sandwiches in-between meals that they received.

Some said they were bored, while others expressed their gratitude for the board games, and other entertainment, including live music in the evenings.

I have been asked why we haven’t used other stadiums and community halls. The fact is that these have already been identified for temporary hospitals, and isolation/quarantine facilities. These are necessary to ensure that we are prepared as the minister of health, Zweli Mkhize, has warned of the “calm before the devastating storm”. We will need these spaces as emergency hospital sites.

The City of Cape Town identified a range of possible sites, and the Strandfontein sports complex enabled us to move quickly as it has a large perimeter fence, existing infrastructure with water and electricity available, and is big enough to accommodate 2,000 homeless people on one site, making the delivery of services far more efficient.

On Thursday, we invited the media to a briefing at the site and offered them a tour of the facilities. During a pre-inspection the site was calm and the homeless who had been given shelter were peaceful. And then the cameras showed up.

Residents of the Strandfontein lockdown camp for the homeless on Cape Town attempt to break through a fence during a media visit on April 9 2020.
Residents of the Strandfontein lockdown camp for the homeless on Cape Town attempt to break through a fence during a media visit on April 9 2020.
Image: Esa Alexander

Journalists went to groups of the homeless and with big cameras in their faces began asking questions: “Are you happy here?", “Do you like the food”, and “Are you allowed to leave?”

Within seconds a handful of the once-calm community became completely riled up and tried to push down a fence, which law enforcement officers had to push back. These videos have been splashed online as “evidence” of the “concentration camp”.

The scenes were everything that a sensation-seeker could want. I thank those who showed restraint and reported fairly on the visit.

Later in the evening, long after the media had left, the individuals who had performed for the cameras earlier in the day, shouting and hurling insults, were now apologetic and had an entirely different message.

I wish to stress: None of them are kept against their will, and they all know they are free to leave, as did 36 individuals from Somerset West who were returned to the streets from which they were transported earlier in the week. The other 1,451 have chosen to stay.

Staff at the Strandfontein lockdown camp for homeless people in Cape Town are equpped with personal protective equipment.
Staff at the Strandfontein lockdown camp for homeless people in Cape Town are equpped with personal protective equipment.
Image: Esa Alexander

One media house claimed police had fired rubber bullets at another group who had tried to leave (the same group we later transported back to Somerset West). I found this report disturbing and immediately requested a full site report.

The report confirmed that no city law enforcement or metro police officer fired any rubber bullets (staff on site are not even in possession of the firearms required to fire rubber bullets). The journalist(s) who made this claim have been unable to provide any evidence other than “they heard or saw” shots being fired. I have no credible reason to doubt the site manager’s report.

I am grateful for the many positive reports about the site that I have received from the religious and community leaders who also inspected the site and were pleased with what they saw. Some of them have shared their views on Facebook.

We are fully committed to working with the national government to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

I want to call on those political opportunists now, please stop politicising a very serious situation. We are doing whatever we can to ensure that our services continue, that we provide shelter for those who need it, and we are doing it with little to no warning ahead of time.

Municipalities across the country are in the same boat, and we are all doing our best to make this work. Using the coronavirus to score political points is just shameful.

• Plato is mayor of Cape Town


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