City of Cape Town and national government in spat over homeless people living at the Castle
Land belongs to Public Works department
- Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis has warned that if the Department of Public Works does not act to resolve the issue of homeless people living outside the Castle of Good Hope, the City will go to court to seek an eviction order.
- Hill-Lewis said the City had offered its full support to the national Department to resolve “the unlawful occupation of nationally-owned land around the Castle”.
- Minister of Public Works Sihle Zikalala responded by accusing Hill-Lewis of grandstanding.
- But spokesperson for the department Lennox Mabaso said the department was open to a meeting with the City.
Since the Covid lockdowns, homeless people have been living outside The Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town’s oldest building, a popular tourist destination and city landmark. Their future is uncertain because of tensions between the City and national government, which owns the land.
Last year, the City of Cape Town conducted a “clean up” operation at the site. At the time, the people living there accused City officials of confiscating items such as shelter material and important documents.
This led to Ndifuna Ukwazi, a housing advocacy group, obtaining a court order in June 2022, instructing the City to return the confiscated items.
On 5 June, Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis said that the City had offered its full support to the national Department of Public Works to resolve “the unlawful occupation of nationally-owned land around the Castle”.
He said that without intervention, the Castle’s status as a top tourist attraction would be affected.
Hill-Lewis said the City was prepared to launch an eviction application on behalf of Public Works “to ensure the relocation of the occupants and restoration of public access to the site”.
“If no response is received by 16 June, the City will have to assume that the National Government has neither the capacity nor the will to act in the public interest urgently in this matter or at all,” said Hill-Lewis, adding that if Public Works did not meet the deadline, the City would have “no option” but to go to court.
Minister of Public Works Sihle Zikalala responded by accusing Hill-Lewis of grandstanding.
Public Works spokesperson Lennox Mabaso told GroundUp that it was unfortunate that Hill-Lewis’s letter had found its way into the media. “This undermines the spirit of cooperative governance,” he said.
Mabaso said that the Minister would be willing to have a meeting with the mayor “should one be requested”.
He said the department had implemented “Operation Bring Back” which involves “identifying stolen or hijacked properties” that belong to the provincial or national government.
But City of Cape Town spokesperson Luthando Tyhalibongo told GroundUp that extensive consultation about the homeless people living outside the Castle had taken place before Hill-Lewis’s public letter to Zikalala.
He said the City fields “questions and complaints” daily about the Castle and it has “always been transparent about efforts to resolve the matter”. Despite not receiving an official response by the 16 June deadline, the City says it is hopeful of a meeting to resolve the situation.
The City says it sent correspondence to the previous Public Works Minister, Patricia De Lille, close to six months ago, as well as to the President before the State of the Nation address. The City says it also consulted with the Castle’s board of trustees.
Tyhalibongo said the City will try to engage with the Minister. But: “If there is no response and steps are not taken to resolve the situation, the City will be forced to try and seek relief from a court under the auspices of the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act Act, and in so doing ensure that just and equitable relief is achieved.”
Tyhalibongo indicated that the City is committed to engaging with national government and “we will be following up with Public Works this week”.
When GroundUp visited the site this month, many of the people who were there last year appeared to have moved on, replaced by new people.
We found many people cooking breakfast on small open fires. Most were reluctant to speak to journalists about the possible eviction order. Shermonay Velix said she had been living on the streets for four years. “I didn’t have work and my mother died. I had a boyfriend here so I started staying here,” she told us. She’s open to being moved to a shelter, she told us, but there is mistrust between the people living there and city officials.
Calvyn Gilfellan, the CEO of the Castle, told GroundUp that he was not against moving the people living there, but stressed that it must be done properly. “There needs to be support for people who live in inhumane conditions. This whole notion of evictions stings.”
He said the number of tourists who visited the Castle in the past year had, in fact, increased from 33,000 to 67,000 people. “We should respect the rights of the poor and marginalised because they don’t know the law. They don’t have a network of support and resources to deal with the issue. All three spheres of government should work together and resolve this problem.”
Stephen Underwood, spokesperson for U-Turn Homeless Service Centre, said the situation at the Castle highlights the complexities of solving homelessness. “Eviction orders, fines and imprisonment do not contribute to a long-term solution to homelessness. In fact, they may exacerbate the problem and at significant cost to the public purse.”
The City is likely to offer the Culemborg Safe Space, a shelter, to the occupiers. Jonty Cogger, an attorney at Ndifuna Ukwazi. He said that the City needed to think differently about housing interventions. “What we ultimately fear is that homeless shelters, in the absence of viable long-term affordable housing alternatives, will be adding to a vicious cycle of homelessness.”
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