MEDIA STATEMENT: Poverty is not a crime!

Recent media reports highlighting the issuing of fines to homeless people based on laws or city by-laws which prohibits people from sleeping in any undesignated area or obstructing sidewalks sparked much outrage, with officials presenting arguments woefully justifying the existence and enforcement of these provisions with generalised statements.

Officials argue that by-law provisions do not target homeless people and are enforced against all persons without infringing their constitutional rights and guarantees. However, an analysis of some of these by- laws show how broadly a specific group of people, mainly poor people (homeless, beggars and ‘car guards’), are targeted as they are more likely to engage in the prohibited conduct described, given their socio-economic circumstances. 

South Africa’s by-laws prohibiting persons without a fixed abode from loitering or sleeping in a public space or soliciting a driver of a vehicle for the purpose of guarding the vehicle, criminalises life-sustaining activities in public. 

These vagrancy or nuisance related by-laws essentially criminalises poverty as it targets persons whose only crime is that they are ‘undesirables’ and without an income or means of subsistence. 

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has expressed concern that laws prohibiting activities such as loitering, camping, begging, and lying in public spaces criminalises homelessness and that such laws have a disproportionate effect on vulnerable groups. 

Homelessness is the most visible manifestation of poverty. 

Homelessness is a complex issue and covers a wide range of issues such as lack of affordable accommodation, employment, mental health, addiction, education, skills, and adequate health care. Homeless people require multifaceted holistic responses and social interventions without barriers such as the provision of food, shelter, counselling, etc. 

Homeless people are generally poor, marginalised and pose no threat to public safety. 

They are the ones that are more vulnerable to risks and challenges as they face the streets. Evidence of this is the reported increasing spate of murders of homeless people in Pretoria. 

Instead of criminalising poverty, authorities need to develop and implement comprehensive plans, strategies and programmes to deal with poverty and homelessness. 

This will require fundamentally different responses in the way the poor and homeless are being dealt with. 

The way local governments view homelessness largely determines their responses. Such responses will either have to be one of empathy and compassion or one of public apathy and compassion fatigue. The balancing of ‘the rights of street people with the rights of the general population’ is tantamount to an “us” versus “them” narrative and is generally a response of public apathy and compassion fatigue. 

Human dignity is a basic right to which all human beings are entitled without discrimination. 

Sanctioning poor persons by virtue of their socio-economic status equates to sanctioning their mere existence and challenges.  

Africa Criminal Justice Reform is an initiative at the Dullah Omar Institute and is a partner to the Campaign on Decriminalisation and Declassification of Petty Offences in Africa. 

For further comment contact:

Lukas Muntingh (021) 959 3709

Kristen Petersen (021) 959 3603

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