Homeless people and food security expected to top agenda for new WC pandemic oversight committee.

NEWS | Daily Maverick | By Suné Payne• 16 April 2020

A row over a City of Cape Town relocation camp for homeless people and food security should be high on the agenda of a new oversight committee established by the Western Cape legislature, say MPLs.

The Western Cape provincial legislature has launched an oversight committee to monitor the activities of the provincial government during the Covid-19 pandemic. But there are serious issues the province needs to address: food security for those who cannot afford it and the Strandfontein temporary shelter for homeless people run by the City of Cape Town.

In a statement this week, the Western Cape Provincial Parliament announced the establishment of a 15-member ad hoc parliamentary committee that would perform oversight of the work of the provincial government in its response to the pandemic.

The committee has oversight over any department, provincial organ of state “or provincial entity involved in activities dealing with the pandemic” the legislature said.

This committee, according to DA Chief Whip Mireille Wenger, will sit for the first time on Friday 17 April.

Wenger told Daily Maverick that while she couldn’t speculate as to what should be the first focus of the committee, “I would like to see the committee focus on the most important themes which relate to an effective response to the Covid-19 pandemic for the Western Cape province, ranging from health responses, to food security to economic recovery.”

GOOD’s Brett Herron who is also part of the ad hoc committee, highlighted food security as a key issue that needed focus from this new committee.

“Families are running out of food and the anxiety and desperation is illustrated by what we saw in various communities in Cape Town yesterday,” said Herron.

Tuesday saw shops looted and protests across the Cape Flats, as some communities were angry that they had not received food parcels yet. Read GroundUp’s reporting on the Tafelsig protest here.

Herron told Daily Maverick informal traders were still getting a rough deal, stating, “Informal food trading is still not fully implemented in the City of Cape Town – two weeks after the regulations were amended. Informal food trading is an essential part of food security in poor communities – cutting off the trade unnecessarily destroys fragile survivalist incomes.”

But how has the province thus far handled its response to Covid-19?

Both Wenger and Herron agree the communication has been good, with Wenger saying, “this includes a Covid-19 website, providing an abundance of resources and updates, as well as a provincial hotline”.

But Herron, a vocal critic of the DA, the governing provincial party, says that while the website and provincial hotlines provide an abundance of resources and updates, “of course this has always been the [provincial] government’s priority since it elevates political profiles at state expense”.

The biggest question is whether the oversight committee has oversight over municipalities within the province, something which is not completely clear at this point.

Herron said if there is no oversight from the committee of municipalities, the committee would serve “no real purpose”.

Wenger, however, said because there is a Department of Local Government, “we will therefore be eager to further understand how municipalities are complying with lockdown regulations in their response to the pandemic”.

One such example is the Strandfontein temporary relocation camp in Cape Town where homeless people from around the City have been kept since last week. This site has caused controversy, as media access has been denied unless there are media briefings. On 7 April, police fired rubber bullets at homeless people who were trying to escape from the camp on the outskirts of the city. According to GroundUp, one doctor described the area as a “shitshow”.

On Thursday 9 April, it was confirmed that journalists were no longer allowed on site, reported GroundUp. Reports from EyeWitness News confirmed a young woman had been raped at the camp last Wednesday evening, but this was only reported to the police on Friday.

Herron told Daily Maverick that he would be taking up the Strandfontein situation with this committee.

“I visited the camp soon after it was set up. I believe it is an inadequate and careless response to the obligation to provide adequate shelter. The facilities, the food and medical resources and the programmes being made available to the homeless in this camp require urgent attention… so too does the exit from this camp.

“What happens when the lockdown is lifted? Where do the homeless go?  We need to understand the City’s plan and the MEC for social development or her officials will have to demonstrate that they have exercised oversight over the city’s intervention. I will most definitely be engaging with the committee and the officials on this.”

Wenger said the DA caucus in the province believed the City had followed the call from President Cyril Ramaphosa to find shelter for the homeless during the lockdown.

“The City of Cape Town has taken steps to provide for the well-being of individuals on-site, for example, through the recent delivery of 2,000 mattresses, mass screening for Covid-19 and TB, as well as other medical treatment which otherwise may not have been provided. This is a difficult and unprecedented situation that Cape Town and other cities are grappling with,” she said.

The ANC, the legislature’s official opposition, has on numerous occasions called for the relocation area to be closed down, especially after the reported rape.

In a statement, the caucus said: “We have been warning for days that unilaterally setting up the camp for people who live on our streets was a recipe for disaster. During a visit to this camp earlier this week our MPL Gladys Bakubaku-Vos warned it was unacceptable to mix men and women and, especially in light of the high incidence of rape in our country, also putting women at risk. It saddens us that the rape of a young female has proved our warnings to be correct.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the City of Cape Town’s Mayco Member for Community and Health Services, Zahid Badroodien, confirmed that the site was still closed to the public and to the media. In addition, he said:

“The City of Cape Town has put together a facility that is currently housing approximately 1,500 persons. Despite some initial challenges, there is a daily improvement in our services at Strandfontein:

  • We are protecting the homeless from Covid-19 through comprehensive screening, testing and isolating, where needed, at this facility.
  • We are caring for the homeless by providing healthcare, shelter, three meals a day, hot showers, ablution and laundry facilities.
  • The site is professionally managed 24/7 in partnership with experienced NGO service providers.”

Badroodien also said “every person who has come on site has been screened for Covid-19, as well as TB, and other chronic conditions. We have a dozen positive TB cases and no confirmed cases of Covid-19. Where needed, we have referred persons for appropriate treatment – something that would not have been possible, given our limited resources, if they were still scattered around the city.”

The new ad hoc committee needs to find out exactly what is going on at Strandfontein site and how to ensure food security for starving communities, to enable them to survive the next few months. DM