Human Rights Commission report flays Cape Town’s Strandfontein relocation site

A homeless man shouts from behind a fenced off area during a media tour of the Strandfontein temporary homeless shelter site in Cape Town. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

NEWS | By Suné Payne• 29 April 2020

Strandfontein relocation camp in Cape Town, where homeless people were moved after the Covid-19 lockdown, has been a site of what the mayor called ‘political opportunism’ due to conflicting reports of mismanagement of the camp. Now, the South African Human Rights Commission has released a report laying bare what is really going on in the camp.

“The site is in gross violation of national and international human rights and must be closed down with immediate effect,” reads a report on the conditions of the City of Cape Town-run Strandfontein relocation camp, meant to house homeless people during South Africa’s extended 35-day lockdown.

The South African Human Rights Commission’s investigation report, titled “Independent Report submitted to the South African Human Rights Commission concerning the City of Cape Town’s Covid-19 Shelter For Street-based People — Strandfontein, Cape Town” makes for a sad read: inadequate social distancing, limited access to healthcare, including for pre- and post-natal care and allegations of sexual assaults.

The camp was established as South Africa was going into lockdown and all citizens were required to stay at home except for essential service workers. Lockdown regulations meant the city’s homeless population needed to be accommodated at shelters for the duration of the lockdown.

By 5 April, the report says, homeless people began to move into the camp. By then, problems had cropped up — reports of media and opposition parties blocked from getting access to the site and instances of rubber bullets being fired by law enforcement against homeless people who were attempting to run away from the site. At the time, GroundUp reported a group of homeless people had protested against the living conditions of the camp.

Through independent consultants, the report found the following:

Gender issues 

There is no clear confirmation of the exact numbers of people in the camp. Men and women were sleeping in the same tents. While there were women who wanted to stay with their partners, “there were other women who did not wish to be sleeping in the same room as so many men”, wrote Dr Orly Maya Stern, who looked at issues of gender within the camp.

Bathroom facilities were not up to standard — there was no clear distinction between female and male toilets.

“There are no signs marking the women’s toilets and showers. There is no mesh or walling or space separating the men and women’s facilities. Men can freely access women’s facilities, as these are not cordoned off in any way. This creates a clear security risk for women” said Stern.

There was limited privacy for women to change, other than portable toilets which were dirty and not cleaned properly. Women were concerned about their safety. When the investigation occurred, an 18-year-old woman was allegedly raped. The young woman was moved to a place of safety, JP Smith, mayoral committee member for Safety and Security, would later say.

“Some said that there had been other attacks of a sexual nature on the site, yet that people were afraid to discuss this. Women spoke of the need for security around the toilets and showers, particularly at night” reads Stern’s submission. There are about 20 transgender people at the camp and they do not feel safe within the tents. Stern’s notes read:

“The group suggests having a special tent/area for the LGBTI group to ensure their safety, as they are a highly vulnerable group. The group also reported that their personal nurse from the Triangle Project had not been allowed into the site, of concern to them as they have specific health needs, which this nurse would be able to address.”

Additionally, Stern said people came to the camp after being provided with false information.

“Residents complained that they had come to the centre after being provided with false information. Some had been told they would be going just for a couple of days. Some had been promised they were going to a proper shelter – which they emphasised this was not,” wrote Stern.

Health issues 

“Women, men, transgender women, elderly men and women, pregnant women, people with disabilities, people with severe mental health disorders, drug users with acute withdrawal symptoms and gang members are all grouped together, with an increased risk of violence and very limited security in place, thereby endangering their safety as well as their dignity. Rather than being a place of safety, the shelter exposes vulnerable people to further harm,” writes Dr Gilles van Cutsem from Medecins sans Frontieres/Doctors without Borders, who looked at health issues.

Van Cutsem highlighted that there was no medical staff on site between 4pm until 8am the next morning, with some residents complaining that they did not have any access to medical services.

“During my visit I had to ask service provider staff to call an ambulance for two men in the Haven tent as there was no medical staff present anymore from 15:30 onwards. I did not see an ambulance arriving within the two hours I remained on site after having asked for one”, he wrote.

In one case, a 68-year-old man with an indwelling urinary catheter was complaining of severe shortness of breath and in the other case, a young man with severe head and face trauma needed medical care after a fight.

Van Cutsem also said there was no ongoing screening for Covid-19 symptoms and signs as well as for other diseases.

“Several residents observed had signs and symptoms of respiratory diseases including cough, shortness of breath and myalgia. Several residents observed required medical care, but were not receiving it,” the doctor said in the report. In addition, he reported that several residents complained about chronic medication that had been interrupted as they could not access this at the clinic.

“Several people claimed they did not receive their antiretroviral treatment, inhalers for asthma, anti-epileptic medication (such as Epilim), antipsychotic drugs (such as clopixol and chlorpromazine), and medication for diabetes (such as insulin),” said Van Cutsem, who added that “there was no soap at any of the hand-washing points in any of the compounds”.

“None of the people leaving toilets observed did wash their hands with soap afterwards. Residents reported to have received one small bar of soap but reported this was insufficient for the week to shower, wash hands, and wash their clothes. Several of the toilets observed were severely soiled”.

Medical and health services 

Dr Duncan Laurenson, who was responsible for reporting on medical and health services, wrote:

“It is important to note that this report is limited as we were unable to speak to the medical site manager or other medical staff directly, and were restricted from viewing the isolation tents.”

The doctor, who has 20 years of experience in addiction medicine, said “most of the complaints or lack of service delivery appear to be related to delays in the arrival of service delivery in the first few days, rather than a denial of access. One could probably criticise a lack of planning expertise in dealing with the expected medical morbidities in this population”.

Laurenson said services appeared to be lacking in terms of medical monitoring, designated referral staff such as nurses familiar to residents, experience with treating substance use disorders, mental health support, after-hours services and emergency services.

See the full report  here

Meanwhile, the South African National Civic Organisation condemned the City’s handling of the camp. Criticising the governing DA’s leadership since the lockdown, the organisation said that “this is the same leadership which dumped homeless people in Strandfontein in conditions which cannot be scrutinised by legitimate public representatives”.

“This has been done without consulting local communities and without inputs from other leaders and stakeholders. This begs the question: why? and what are they hiding?”

In a statement, the organisation urged the DA to “allow legitimate public representatives and the media access to the Strandfontein site”. Media are not allowed on the site unless permission has been granted by the City’s Safety and Security directorate.

Media watchdog the South African National Editors Forum previously said it was “worrisome” that visits by media personnel needed to be prearranged.

Cape Town mayor Dan Plato said in Mail and Guardian:

“When political parties started campaigning against the Strandfontein temporary emergency accommodation site, I called on them to please have some respect and work with us. Instead, they have continued to politicise a national pandemic for personal political gain.”

When asked for comment via email and SMS, his office had not responded at the time of publishing. When the response is received, Daily Maverick will publish it.

This week, the plight of homeless people will be aired in the Western Cape legislature. Their situation will be discussed when the provincial ad hoc committee on Covid-19 meets the Department of Social Development. DM