The authorities are failing to act against growing vagrancy, including the lighting of fires, on a municipal site near a Plumstead traffic circle, say nearby residents.
Last week, ward councillors Emile Langenhoven and Eddie Andrews handed a memorandum to Diep River police on behalf of the Gabriel Road Area Project Association (GRAPA), a civic group that has red-flagged the situation at the Gabriel Road traffic circle.
Tents started popping up on the municipal land at the beginning of lockdown, and more have been pitched in the past two weeks, according to Plumstead residents Sonje and Adodo Maizungue who returned to South Africa one year ago from Togo.
Most of the residents who signed the memorandum live in Courtney Mansions, in Bardia Road.
Louis Fourie, who owns one of these flats, said he had lost his tenants in August after the squatters had thrown a brick at them.
He has since moved into the vacated flat himself but said he had not had a night’s sleep because the squatters screamed and fought late at night.
He also accused them of lighting fires that gave off a toxic-smelling smoke, using a wall next to the block as a toilet, and throwing rocks against a pre-cast concrete wall, breaking one of its panels.
He had tried calling the Diep River police station during a sleepless night last week, but no one had answered the phone, and when he had called 10111 and City Law Enforcement he had been given reference numbers and told that vehicles would be sent, but they had never arrived, he said
“There are signs on the land – no camping, no fires. Whose responsibility is it to arrest them? ”
Linda Cilliers said she was also unable to sleep and was developing asthma because of toxic fumes from the squatter’s fires. She also could not walk to the nearby pet shop without being harassed, she said.
Lesley Coetzee lives on the second floor of the block and runs a hairdressing business from home. Her customers used to park on the land now used by the squatters, but she said they now parked on the block’s premises to avoid being harassed by beggars.
Ms Coetzee said she had a “hacking cough” from noxious fumes and had taped up all her windows.
Cynthia Hepner, 87, who lives across the road from the block, said a man from the camp had recently thrown a brick at her but it had missed. The squatters were there because people drove past and gave them money, clothes, food and blankets, she said.
After the handover of the memorandum on Thursday November 11, the camp appeared deserted, but, on Tuesday, a small child ran around the tents and Megan Mushfieldt, of Lavender Hill, emerged from one of them.
She said they used only a small piece of plastic wrapped in newspaper to start their fires. If they wanted to go to the toilet, they dug a hole at a spot near Solum Court and then covered it after they were done. She said they kept the area clean, and the men took the recycling away on Fridays to sell. She said the man who had thrown a brick at Ms Hepner had later apologised to her. They would rather be living at the site than in a shelter, and returning to Lavender Hill meant gangs and death. “Living here is very peaceful,” she said.
“Put us all in one place. Down the road there is vacant land, there are empty houses with security guards, we can look after them, there will be no crime,” she said.
Mr Langenhoven urged the public not to give hand-outs directly to the homeless as they only encouraged them to stay on the streets. Donations should rather be made through the City’s Give Dignity programme, he said.
Grapa executive committee member, Elaine Rousseau, who owns the historical Homestead venue, between Bardia Road and Constantia Main Road, said the association had applied in June last year to start a food garden on the site.
With the loss of Norman Henshilwood voting station, the area now falls under Mr Andrews’s Ward 73, but Mr Langenhoven said both he and Mr Andrews were keen to work with police, social services and others to find an amicable solution.
The issue was as much about the rights of residents as it was about treating the homeless with dignity, he said.
“They are embarrassed. Many want jobs, affordable places to live. They do not want to live in shelters because they lose their freedom,” he said.
Outgoing mayoral committee member for community services and health, Zahid Badroodien, said the City had received many complaints from Plumstead residents about the homeless, who, he said, had refused offers of alternative accommodation.
“With the court order disallowing us from removing them, our hands are tied,” said Dr Badroodien, referring to the case brought by the SA Human Rights Commission and the EFF, in November 2020, to stop the City from relying on the common-law right of counter-spoliation to quickly reverse illegal land seizures. Judgment in the matter has been reserved.
Diep River police spokesman Constable Zak Marais said residents should join Plumstead Neighbourhood Watch (PNW) to be part of the security network provided by the Constantia Valley Watch.
“They will then have access to responses from the security companies and the PNW and, ultimately, police to assist with complaints,” he said.
Constable Marais also advised Grapa to have representation on the Diep River Community Police Forum to have access to information that will assist policing.
We sent questions to eight people at the SA Human Rights Commission regarding resident’s basic human rights on Friday November 12 and again three days later. No-one responded.