Carin Gelderbloem was woken in the early hours by a large rock crashing down on her tent. A group of high school students had been drinking all day in Company’s Garden, just down the road from the South African Parliament.
They were now terrorising its homeless.
When Gelderbloem’s boyfriend, Rameez Kemp, went outside to protest, he was beaten and stabbed repeatedly. Colon hanging out, he managed to stagger to the park entrance. Having lost a lot of blood, he was eventually taken by ambulance to Somerset Hospital two hours later, within an inch of his life.
When she reported the incident at the Cape Town Central police station, Gelderbloem says officials told her it was her boyfriend’s fault for choosing to sleep rough in the first place. This was October 2018 – one of her first encounters with the city’s police.
“When you stand up to law enforcement, you are David and they are Goliath,” she said. “They told us we don’t have any rights.”
During her nine years on and off the street, Gelderbloem, 51, alleges that law enforcement officers confiscated clothes, sleeping bags, dentures and even the beads that she used to make and sell jewellery. On multiple occasions, in the dead of night, she says city authorities would rip away the cardboard and plastic sheeting that she used to shelter from the elements.
Gelderbloem says such incidents were often accompanied by torrents of verbal abuse. “They have never spoken to me like a decent human being,” she said. “I ask them, ‘Do you speak to your mother like that?’ Don’t think that this can never happen to you. Homelessness can happen to anybody in the blink of an eye.”
Archaic bylaws, rooted in colonial-era vagrancy and “pass laws” exported by the Dutch and British to subjugate the Indigenous population, essentially criminalise homelessness in municipalities throughout South Africa. In Cape Town, those lying down, sitting or standing in public spaces have been fined up to 2,000 South African rands ($146). While these bylaws technically apply to everyone, they disproportionately affect the homeless who often have nowhere else to go. An amendment to the bylaws, currently under public review, would allow law enforcement to physically remove homeless people from an area and arrest them on the spot if they refuse an offer of alternative shelter and seize tents.