ON Monday March 23, 2020, a national lockdown was announced, which then started on March 27. That Friday I sat on our stoep in Green Point and a listless silence hung over everything.
As the days unfolded, I saw more and more needy people walking in our street. One woman cried every day.
Her sorrow originated from a deep darkness. We made sandwiches, gave money, the number of homeless grew.
To get some fresh air, I often took a Woolies bag, put on a mask and walked to Sea Point to shop. Outside every supermarket there were hordes of hungry people begging for food, not even money.
I (and a few others) used to buy about 10 loaves of bread, polony and butter. Not because I'm such a fantastic person (on the contrary), simply because it was my human duty.
I noticed certain people glaring at me. One day, a woman with a blonde haircut and a white catsuit said to me: “These vragrants are a nuisance in the area, invaders. Stop feeding them."
I continued walking in a daze, past an area near the tennis courts across from Three Anchor Bay that later became known as Tent City. Every time I was there, I saw the space filling up.
Various organisations intervened and started feeding displaced people and tent dwellers. I'm scared to name names. Because there have been so many court cases about defamation, eviction orders and racism, I will have to be careful, finger on the mouth.
One clique was vocal on social media about people who gave food to those in need. They called the starving people “vagrants, criminals, dirt, interlopers, barbarians" and “out-of-towners".
Later, disputes really got out of hand when they found out there was a couple in Mouille Point who were feeding people. They had a legal permit to do so.
One man spread the “sinner's" personal details on social media. During the night of Wednesday May 6, men on motorbikes drove past his car in Mouille Point and pelted it with petrol bombs.
The car was destroyed. Later, the police also arrived at this Samaritan's residence and threatened him.
Various artists and activists subsequently beautified the wreckage of the Mini and it served as a monument and work of art to remind people of survival and goodwill.
The noise on social media only got worse and defamation lawsuits were filed in courts. It got so bad that politician Brett Herron filed a complaint with the police against one of the most toxic Facebook groups.
I made my point clear on some of these groups and have been banned from quite a few, simply because I was on the homeless people's side. It was lockdown time, people were impoverished, but some of Sea Point's wealthy residents hardened their hearts against the “occupation" of land because they were worried about property prices.
One day, we who identified ourselves as pro-poor appeared on a “hit list”.
It was a type of blacklist that warned us to be on our guard. At the top of the list was a message: “And please would you ditch any more kowtowing to the nasty leftists, especially the following ratbags.” There were 12 of us lefties and ratbags, what a badge of honour. It ended like this: “And there you have them. My eagle eyes will keep a close watch on any online and offline fraternising with the wicked people mentioned above.”
This list was dismissed as a joke but it added to the dangerous atmosphere that prevailed in Sea Point. The walls of one woman's house were spray-painted during the night and she also became involved in a court case.
Another woman on the list had a miscarriage and is now out of the country. One woman was bullied so much that she wanted to take her own life and we had to devise plans to assist her. She moved out of Cape Town.
During this time of Covid and harshness, a young dog walker whose work had dried up hanged himself from a lamppost in Sea Point.
I was denounced as antisemitic at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, something it does not take lightly. As a child I grew up with Jewish children in Sea Point, my mother entertained Jewish activists such as Hilda Bernstein and I have lived on and off with a Jew for 40 years.
My new baby cat, Sally, was found dead in the street. Was it mere coincidence? Maybe.
Everything that happened during that time was horrific and made the lockdown even more unbearable. It also shone a light on the dark side of sunny Sea Point.
In the middle, without Cyril
Where Sea Point, Three Anchor Bay and Mouille Point meet, Tent City still stands in the middle of everything after Covid. The comments on social media held up a dark mirror to these neighbourhoods, our own “triangle of sadness”: residents with lazy thinking, cognitive bias, blatant racism, raw hatred of poor people.
People suggested they should be loaded onto trucks and put to work on farms like animals on their way to slaughterhouses. Kibbutzes had to be created for them.
There was and is no awareness that their poverty did not arise in a vacuum. Tent City is like a metaphorical Gaza onto which the dark, shadowy side of unresolved trauma is projected — under a guise of concern about the crime that goes hand in hand with deprivation.
The real reason is a fear of property prices collapsing. (More about property development at the bottom of this article.)
A while ago I wrote a story on the residents of Tent City and met people who lost everything during the pandemic. If they don't want to go to work, the choirs sang with hubris, they should go to night shelters.
The reality is that you are allowed to stay at most night shelters for only three months. During the day they close their doors and you have to look for work (where?) and walk the streets.
Valencia Lewis of Tent City once told me she was raped in a night shelter and contracted HIV. She has been without an ID document for 18 years, she feels as if she doesn't exist.
Lizaan Anthas asked me: “Where should I sleep? I am a Capetonian. Should I break in somewhere? And if I sleep on the pavement I am fined R2,000. Where should I go?”
Carlos Filipe Mesquita, a man who lived on the streets for years and today works with many homeless people, says there are often not enough beds for the nearly 17,000 displaced people in Cape Town.
“The people who end up on the streets are often older people who simply couldn't afford a retirement plan, women who were exposed to gender-based violence in male-dominated households, disabled people who can't find work, teenagers from the LGBTQI+ community who were kicked out of parents' homes, addicts and people suffering from mental health problems."
The inhabitants of Tent City have also been compared to baboons. “Don't feed the baboons."
One man told me that after losing his business, house and car during Covid, he was too depressed to function. He could hardly speak.
Some of them told me their mothers worked as domestic workers in Sea Point when they were children. I remember as a child that their mothers were forbidden access to the Sea Point swimming pool, except if they were there in uniform to watch the boss's children get their feet wet. The “nannies" were not allowed to sit on the benches on the promenade either.
South Africa's ambassador in Benin, Ruby Marks, mentioned to me that she wanted to sponsor one of the benches with a memorial plaque in honour of all the domestic helpers and gardeners who could not sit on them.
If they wanted to socialise, they had to sit on the sharp rocks at Sunset Beach; if they wanted to have a picnic, this was also their gathering place. This beach has many sharp rocks that you have to climb over in order to swim.
I heard stories in Tent City (and saw for myself as a child) of domestic workers who had to work six days a week for white families and live alone in tiny servants' quarters.
Their own families were on the Cape Flats and had to look after themselves. On Sunday afternoons, the domestic workers could visit their families and take some of the white people's leftover food with them.
A friend, Shereen Bester, grew up on the Cape Flats. Her mother worked for a large white family in Sea Point. She told me one day: “My mother couldn't be with us when we had a birthday. Many families were without parents. My own father is gone because he never saw my mother. From the age of 11 I had to play mother to my sisters.
“People wonder why there are so many problems on the Vlakte. It is because the people are broken. These problems spill over into other areas.
“During the day my mother had to take the white children to a park while we had to sleep alone at night. We lived on samp and bread. At night we sucked our thumbs because we were so alone.
“Sometimes when she brought some of the white people's leftover jelly home, it melted on the train," she told me one night in the Ritz Plaza hotel from behind the bar where she worked.
I remember from my childhood days that Thursday evenings were “maids' night off". Then every restaurant in Sea Point was packed with white people. There were long queues, you could barely get into Caponero, Sloppy Sam or La Perla.
The residents of Tent City were also told to go back to where they came from. This was said without a hint of irony. I suspect their ancestors were there long before the white people.
Many of Sea Point and the surrounding areas' white residents inherited money or properties. Daddy paid for their boarding when they went to university.
They inherited mom's second-hand Volla. Pocket money and clothes were provided. Some will tell you they had to work as waiters for their pocket money. Shame, at least you could work in the front of the restaurant and receive tips, unlike the black kitchen staff.
With their parents' network of influential white people, they easily found a job. If that didn't happen, there was white affirmative action, you could work for the civil service. Very few of the people we see in tent towns today had such chances.
And yet, the high-flyers of Sea Point don't think of the past at all. All these events, all these humiliations, are conveniently forgotten. Move on, apartheid is over, say people who still commemorate the South African War and the Holocaust (and rightly so).
If you're white, don't forget that it's your conscience lurking under the tent flaps. The bill that our ancestors so neatly left for us.
Good news for many is that the end of Sea Point's Tent City is nigh. On January 31, all structures must be demolished. The residents tell me they are not going anywhere.
I contacted Sea Point's councillor, Nicola Jowell, about this issue. Every time she posts something positive on Facebook, she gets it from people who are not interested in her good work but want to chastise her about Tent City.
This often results in scathing ad hominem attacks. It is said that this is a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood and she, as a Jew, does not care about her people's well-being. Then they vent about Tent City (Little Gaza, my words).
She says: “The City's Department of Social Development and its Housing Department have become actively involved with the people living in Tent City.
“We offer them accommodation in safe spaces, shelters and also premises in Delft. We cannot force them to accept the offers but there has been an indication from many that they will accept the assistance and the City will help them with relocation.
“The date to leave the site voluntarily is the end of January. If there are still people living there, the City will go to court a week later and then instruct the sheriff to intervene at the site. It is a long process. Once the premises are vacated, the tenant will secure the premises to prevent any other illegal occupations."
It is probably a good thing, law and order must be maintained. Yet we know that land issues and psychological and material suffering from the past are much more nuanced in our country.
By the way, it is known among residents that President Cyril Ramaphosa regularly walks on the Sea Point promenade and also on the part opposite the tent town. He has not once bothered to go and talk to them.
I almost can't believe it, he's the president right? Can't he see what's going on?
The end, or a new beginning?
Despite Tent City, Sea Point is flourishing. There are more restaurants than ever before.
At the top of Regent Street, where the circle is, I counted more than 20 restaurants in close proximity to each other. A smorgasbord where you can eat fish, pizza, sushi, steaks and Greek and Moroccan food.
The property market is booming and an old “servant's room" can now cost you just over R1 million. New buildings are going up on almost every corner, some of them (not all) so ugly and out of touch with the rest of the architecture that they're an attack on the retina. Hostile structures that scare you.
I asked an architect friend to describe the new buildings' appearance. Because some of the people involved in developing these hideous places are his clients, he remains anonymous.
He says: “I once heard an architect describe it as ‘Cape industrial chic'. In general, I think industrial buildings are more appropriate for Woodstock or the port, or real industrial cities in the northern hemisphere. I think Cape buildings should be playful, sculptural and luxurious — in white and pastel shades.”
Back to the discord during Covid. It has made certain people feel more confident about being biased.
One Facebook community page posted an old photo of the Sea Point swimming pool from the 1980s. Some of the reactions: “It was a nice place." “Before the ANC came to screw everything up!" “When the water was still blue." “Do you remember when it was clean — and never again." “It was beautiful, before the aliens arrived."
Then there was the woman who wrote on another page that she saw “people evidently not from Sea Point" having a picnic on Rocklands beach. The “barbarians" had entered the castle grounds.
Because there is an abundance of residents who complain non-stop about the most laughable things, there are at least a few “bright spots". During the mountain fires, one concerned resident wrote: “Anyone else getting fed up with the noise pollution from the helicopters flying too low over the Atlantic Seaboard? I've mailed Nicola Jowell."
A clown answered: “It’s better if you can get a picture of them flying low that shows their unique number underneath, but you need quite a good camera to do that.”
Can you imagine that? You hear a helicopter, run outside in your pyjamas, expensive camera in hand, and try to photograph the shiny belly.
Then this one: “Has anyone noticed a sudden return and sharp increase of seagull activity around the London Road area?” Excuse me?
You live by the sea. There were many more seagulls when I was a child growing up in Sea Point (when it wasn't so overwhelmingly grand). There was a hellish cacophony and blaring but that was part of the background sound of living by the sea.
A former ward councillor, Jacques Weber, writes: “In my final article before I stood down, I said one of the complaints I received was about a tree, which meant the birds were in it outside a resident's apartment. I asked, what would you like us to do? The reply? Cut it down.”
Then there are those who complain about the foghorn. Today's one is so soft, it sounds like a little bird chirping. In previous years when the old one blew, the whole place shook.
Luc Hosten answers: “Those are all reasons why I love the area, also the smell of vrotting kelp and the sound of the sea. As a kid I knew the foghorn as ‘la vache qui meurt’, the dying cow. I survived childhood and miss it.”
In another complaint a woman writes: “The noise that the ships are making is getting out of hand. The authorities should step in.”
The prize for best entrepreneur goes to the singing woman. She has a booming singing voice, and when she screams it's even worse. Her habit is to stand outside a large block of flats around 5am and sing. She makes so much noise, she wakes everyone up.
She only stops if someone runs out and gives her R100. Oh sad Sea Point, at least you can still make me laugh.
♦ VWB ♦
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