Is it the law?
Guy Trangos contributes his thoughts on Urban Joburg’s third CityAfrika event held on Operation ke Molao.
This week Urban Joburg and CityAfrika hosted an open discussion on the City of Johannesburg’s Operation KeMalao ‘It’s the law’. The by-law enforcement operation triggered by the City’s Public Safety office targets all traders and beggars operating at traffic intersections.
Ke Molao follows on from the department’s previously notorious operation Clean Sweep, which saw both legal and illegal inner-city informal traders removed en masse from their trading stands with brutal disregard to the socio-economic impact of the action.
Operation Clean Sweep was halted by an urgent Constitutional Court interdict, with the Court stating that, ‘The ability of people to earn money and support themselves and their families is an important component of the right to human dignity – without it, they faced humiliation and degradation’.
Given the precedent of Operation Clean Sweep, the department’s latest operation Ke Molao was met with much scepticism and alarm by those involved in and affected by the former. Urban Joburg editor and Wits Law Lecturer, Thomas Coggin stated that “it was important for Urban Joburg to open up a space for debate, we needed to get all the role players in a room to discuss the impact of Ke Molao on our city and all of its residents”.
The discussion began with spokesperson for Johannesburg Public Safety, Thabo Rangwaga stating that Operation Ke Molao is grounded in stopping activities disallowed by city by-laws at intersections, removing criminal elements from intersections, and ‘giving people a city that they want to see’.
David Cote, a lawyer at Lawyers for Human Rights, responded by agreeing that intersections can indeed be dangerous, but it is problematic to equate poverty with criminality. He also noted that removing people from the streets could be deemed unconstitutional given legal precedent.
Cote continued by stating that certain city-bylaws such as those governing loitering are ‘very vague and widely stated’. This point was reiterated by Coggin later on in the evening when he referred to the fact that by-laws are not perfect, and should evolve with society. He cited the fact that begging fell into a by-law section titled ‘Public Decency’, and noted that it was certainly problematic for any person to be classed as ‘indecent’.
Sarah Charlton, a senior lecturer in planning at Wits, spoke about the nature of public space in Johannesburg. Her insights explored traffic intersections as some of the few spaces in Johannesburg where the ‘more resourced and the less resourced’ come together.
Unlike other global cities with more abundant public spaces where different income groups regularly interact, Johannesburg offers few opportunities for these engagements. This has a negative affect on social cohesion as the wealthy fail to identify with the poor, resulting in their stigmatisation.
Traffic intersections are some of the only places where this interaction happens. Charlton concluded that ‘we shouldn’t just implement by-laws blindly, but rather elevate how we think of public spaces’ – understanding them as a socially valuable resource.
Christopher McMichael, a Wits postdoctoral fellow, noted that urban policies throughout the world are becoming more aggressively anti-poor. He said ‘it’s very easy to harass the poor and make it seem like you are taking positive steps,’ and underscored the unacceptable level of police violence in these operations.
The final panellist was Jetro Gonese, chairman of the Association for the Blind and Disabled in South Africa. He described how he left a teaching post in Zimbabwe to come to South Africa with his family in search of opportunity.
Upon arriving, he was unable to find employment as a blind person and turned to begging in order to support his family. The earnings he made from begging were able to keep his daughter in school, and feed and house his family. He stated that while being blind might render you unemployable, disability does not equate with inability, and that ‘banning people from begging would eliminate the only income that many unemployable people have’.
Significant audience participation ensued with comments including, ‘I’ve been harassed more by cops than by beggars’, ‘does a World Class vision include the poor or merely seek to displace them? ‘Should the public safety office not protect the safety of the poor?’ and ‘I was ill treated by the police – are we (beggars) rubbish that can just be swept away?’
Rangwaga responded by calling on residents to assist his office with shaping solutions, and noted that other city departments bear responsibility for social concerns. This pointed to a glaring omission on the part of the city in implementing Operation KeMolao.
Why were solutions to begging and trading at traffic intersections not first sought before marching in the metro police? Similarly, can the city continue to ask residents for their help and assistance in completing the tasks they are paid to do to the level that residents expect? In addition, as a single entity, can the City of Johannesburg not coordinate its various departments before an office launches operations that often undermine the work and policy of other departments?
Operation Ke Molao was an attention-grabbing move by the City in order to be seen to be ‘doing something’ in the name of crime. Of course, as with Operation Clean Sweep, the poor are seen as criminals and force is enacted on the most vulnerable and marginalised residents.
Little consideration goes into long term strategies to support unemployed migrant communities, be they disabled or not. Even less is done to counter the culture of absolute power in the Metro Police force, where acts of violence and corruption are measured out routinely.
The City of Johannesburg needs to rapidly reconceptualise its approaches to community safety by working to improve the lives of the city’s most marginalised so that begging is not the only option, and at the same time tackling crime in a professional and accountable manner by identifying and targeting actual criminals.
By Guy Trangos
Guy Trangos is a researcher at the Gauteng-City-Region Observatory. He writes in his personal capacity.
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