Blindness: How the Strandfontein camp was set up to fail

COMMENT

In the 1960s, on the outskirts of Cape Town, the apartheid government set up the village-suburb of Strandfontein as a seaside resort for the city’s coloured population who were then barred from so-called “white beaches” like Muizenberg. Its existence is owed, not to the love and care of the National Party, but to an ideology that sought to quarantine populations according to manufactured racial categories. 

One of the first attempts to do this was the 1901 outbreak of the bubonic plague where Africans were forcibly removed to a field hospital which eventually grew into the township of Ndabeni. From that moment onward, the dogma of apartheid was inseparable from the medicalised sequestering of those deemed “unsanitary” and “vectors for disease”.

While formal apartheid ended more than 25 years ago, the social, physical and psychological structures it created remain; so too does apartheid’s doctrine of development by removal and separation. This is evident in national housing policies that ignore the need for housing for the poor in the city and wealthy suburbs. 

It is precisely this ideology that has returned, with a vengeance, with the City of Cape Town’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In his celebrated novel Blindness, Jose Saramago describes a fantastical drama of a plague of “white blindness” that hits a nondescript city, causing widespread panic and a militarised attempt to forcibly quarantine those affected in an abandoned mental asylum. The affliction should be understood as an allegorical presentation of society’s blindness to the way we treat one another; hence, it spreads in a matter of days throughout the population.

If our current social-economic system attempts to govern the majority through the discipline of the market, what happens to those who refuse or fail to conform? Saramago is arguing that our solution to those who challenge governmentality, those that disrupt the normal workings of society, those we fear as abnormal and dirty, is often the method of quarantine.

In other words, there is no state of exception. Attempts to remove street-based people from the central business district and wealthy suburbs has long been a goal of the City of Cape Town. For example, in the “2010 Street People Readiness Plan”, designed by long-time mayoral committee member for safety and security, JP Smith, the World Cup was used as justification for the removal of hundreds of people from the CBD to the infamous Blikkiesdorp relocation camp. 

Now, the city’s response to the threat of the Covid-19 virus has been, once again, addressing the crisis by removing people they see as a societal cancer to a distant internment camp in Strandfontein.

Much of the criticism targeting the camp has focused on its conditions and the types of services it lacks, despite its much greater than R30-million price tag per month (at least R600 per person per day). For weeks, over a thousand people slept there without mattresses. To this day, detainees in the camp lack access to toothpaste, soap, clean clothes, and sanitary pads. And despite all the money spent building a separate medical section of the camp, complete with isolation areas and an eight container health-hub, the actual healthcare provided is dysfunctional and leaves much to be desired. All of these issues with the camp are true and could easily have been fixed if the city bothered to listen to the needs of its detainees.

Yet, we must go deeper if we are to see why the camp’s failure remained inevitable.

By identifying street-based people themselves as a problem, perceiving them as vectors for the transmission of urban blight, crime and disease, public discourse has previously lent credence to securitised solutions. But surveillance and harassment by Law Enforcement’s Displaced Peoples Unit has had a limited impact, leaving street-based people to remain an eyesore for the privileged classes. 

When national government announced a State of Disaster in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the creation of a centralised camp in Strandfontein to forcibly detain Cape Town’s homeless became JP Smith’s final solution: surgically remove the problem and quarantine it out of sight and out of mind. In other words, preventing Cape Town’s most vulnerable from getting the virus was never the actual aim; rather, the city views people living on the street themselves as the health threat, as the embodiment of a societal virus.

Yet, quarantine, while it may work in specific situations for people suspected of having Covid-19, is not a feasible way to configure society. The Strandfontein camp was an attempt to restructure where people live, to resegregate the city whose street population actively defies racial and economic boundaries. In doing so, the City removed over a thousand people from their neighbourhoods where they sleep and work. By concentrating them in an isolated camp, the city became directly responsible for every aspect of their lives, including their dignity – something that, in a mass-camp setting, is impossible to fulfill.

As I have shown in a recent report submitted to the South African Human Rights Commission, the physical structure of the Strandfontein camp – the annulment of freedom and the abolition of personal space save for red lines designated with duct tape – made it impossible for the detainees at the camp to carry out basic health precautions like physical distancing.

In statements on the matter, the city has emphasised that distancing is an individual responsibility of those at the camp. But when you are held in a mass detention facility against your will (simply because you don’t have a permanent address), the matter of individual responsibility is a farce. It is impossible to distance yourself from someone who gets up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and coughs in your direction on the way. In fact, an MIT study has shown that coughs and sneezes can launch viruses such as Covid-19 as far as six metres. One has little chance in a giant communal tent to protect oneself from a person nearby possibly sick with infectious tuberculosis or a coronavirus.

This is why when the city de-densified the three largest tents in the camp, from about 500 people each to about 250, it was merely a bandaid over a structural problem. A total of 250 people in one massive tent not only flouts national Covid-19 regulations against gatherings of more than 50 people, but it removes any capacity for the individual to exercise the necessary health precautions to protect themselves from the virus. Thus, other health issues associated with camp-like settings, such as lice and diarrhoea, were pervasive throughout the camp. And because isolation of people with TB in the medical section did not function as intended, the spread of TB also became inevitable.

The bad news is our worst fears have now come true. According to the NGO Streetscapes, on Monday a detainee, who left the camp only two days before, tested positive for Covid-19. Given the roughly week-long incubation period of the virus, she could not have contracted it anywhere else but inside Strandforntein camp (from other detainees, from City officials, or from Law Enforcement who run the camp).

The problem was the camp itself. The sickness is our society which outcasts the most vulnerable, deeming them necessary for social quarantining. The solution cannot, therefore, aim to fix what is on the surface; the only solution is the phased closure of the camp and the opening of free, quality, dignified, permanent housing that provides private rooms for people to store their belongings and safely distance themselves from whatever affliction that may come their way.

If the city can afford to spend R18 000 per person per month at Strandfontein, they can certainly afford a couple thousand per month to cover the cost of putting them up in empty student residences or hotels during the lockdown or, better yet, into permanent homes.

Sometimes solutions are only complex because we’ve placed layer upon layer of excuses to mask what is really going on. The scourge of homelessness, if we peel away the diversion, has a very simple solution: the provision of public housing, particularly in the inner city. This gets at the root of the problem and makes sure that a city’s most vulnerable population are reintegrated into the social fabric, rather than separated from it. 

Given current discourse, the government can not imagine anything else but forms of social quarantine. Yet, alternatives are possible. Detainees who remain in the camp have formed a forum to organise and assert their own agency. As in Saramago’s novel, quarantine must be broken by the very people who we as a society have damned. Like the escapees from quarantine in Blindness, we will have to look to street-based people themselves to forge a new path of social solidarity as the basis of a better society.

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