Begging & claims to the city
Last week, Urban Joburg hosted the third CityAfrika event held in Johannesburg. We chose to look at Operation ke Molao, giving our thoughts on the issue.
Operation ke Molao is an operation by the City of Joburg to rid its traffic intersections of beggars, windows washers and other traders who utilise the intersection as a way of earning an economic livelihood. The first rationale behind this operation appears to be based on complaints received by the City of these people masquerading as criminals at intersections.
The second rationale appears to come from the video below, which according to the Spokesperson for the MMC for Community Safety, Thabo Rangwaga, went viral. It depicts people orchestrating a ‘smash and grab’ against a motorist. The link drawn by a surprising amount of people is that a) this person was, in fact, a beggar, window washer or hawker and b) that, because of this, ALL beggars, window washers and hawkers have a tendency to launch into fits of criminality.
The third rationale – and ostensibly the primary one – is that ‘it is the law’. Indeed, the acts that ke Molao seek dissuade are indeed illegal. In terms of s 15 (4) of the Public Road and Miscellaneous By-Laws, it is illegal to loiter or solicit or importune any other person for the purpose of begging. This little, seemingly inconspicuous section – which has the rather serious impact of criminalising begging – is listed under the heading ‘Public Decency’, and includes sections forbidding people from appearing unclothed or indecently clothed (what is ‘indecent’, we ask?), as well as singing an obscene or profane song, or using foul language.
So, yes, it is the law, but the law is clearly bad law – for a number of reasons, which we detail below. We focus in this post on section 15 (4) of the by-laws, which criminalises begging. We have looked in the past at the importance of informal trade for a city(here, and here, as well as these four connected posts on Joburg’s informal trader by-laws), and so have decided to focus in this post on the importance of begging in a city.
- We live in a city where people have to beg for a living. There are many people in the city who are unemployed and rely on begging to earn an economic livelihood. For many, varied reasons, they are unable or unwilling to access either formal job opportunities, or charitable organisations.We should neither force people to access charity should they deem it undesirable to do so, nor should we deny people the agency in choosing to beg, either in place of charity, or in addition to accessing charity. For this reason, begging should be facilitated by the city, in order to ensure that people are able to access begging opportunities in a safe and welcoming environment.
- Unlike the promise of jobs or charity, begging provides a form of economic livelihood for many when they probably need it most – now. To expect people to have to wait for a job opportunity, or to figure out how to access charity is ludicrous.
- Earning an economic livelihood through begging is not only key to sustaining a person’s livelihood, but also that of family members. We heard at the event how Jetro Gonese, who used to beg for a living, was able to pay for his daughter’s Grade 1 school fees through the money he earned as a beggar. Thus, begging not only facilitates a person’s own right to dignity, but also enables access to a variety of other rights, such as the right to education.
- Begging is an ever present reminder of the inequality that exists in society. Of course, this reminder does nothing to address inequality, but it prevents a society fooled by a shared fallacy of wealth and privilege. A reality is presented in a relatively raw form, one that is different from the manicured and heavily guarded spatial environment of white suburbia, and reflective of a divided society.
- The criminalisation of begging is also potentially unconstitutional. In South African Informal Traders Association v City of Johannesburg, the Constitutional Court noted how “the ability of people to earn money and support themselves and their families is an important component of the right to dignity. Without it, they face ‘humiliation and degradation.'” The law, of course, recognises that there are ways in which one might not legitimately earn money. You cannot do so through the sale of drugs, for example, or through sex work. To forbid people earning money from begging, however, seems particularly macabre in any society founded upon the vision of a transformative constitution, and particularly one where the need for begging is glaringly obvious.
- The criminalisation of begging is problematic because in a society of inequality, this criminalisation is impossible to enforce. When there is an attempt to enforce it, it is arbitrary in its application. Not only does it fail to ‘sweep’ beggars away, but it also only targets those who beg at certain intersections, for example.
- Some may say that we should criminalise begging at traffic intersections because traffic intersections are for cars, not people. They may say that, in fact, by criminalising begging, we are not only making the intersection safer for beggars, but also for those motorists who use the intersection. The problem with this argument is that it denies the importance of traffic intersections in the car-centric context of Johannesburg. In a city characterised by a lack of public space, traffic intersections provide one of the few spaces in which rich and poor interact. It’s undoubtedly a predominately negative interaction (although, not always – think of how people use intersections as spaces for street entertainment as a way of earning money), but the interaction is there and is important because of the way it provides a platform for difference in the city. The city therefore cannot deny people access to a traffic intersection: they are intersections of a city that go far beyond the automobile.
- Lastly, the criminalisation of begging criminalises the poor. It has the effect of telling those who beg that they have no place in the economic and social life of a city. Beggars are told indirectly to become invisible, devoid of any claims or, indeed, any rights to the city.
Below are some photos from the event.
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