Why the Cape Town fire has thrust the homeless into the spotlight

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The homeless in District Six begin to erect makeshift tents.
The homeless in District Six begin to erect makeshift tents.
Marvin Charles, News24
  • District Six and Vredehoek residents say the influx of homeless people making fire on the mountain's slopes is a ticking time bomb. 
  • A massive fire spread to UCT, where it destroyed several buildings, including the historical special collections library.
  • Law group Ndifuna Ukwazi is fed-up with the City's stance on the homeless and are gearing up for another legal challenge.

Homeless people living on the slopes of Table Mountain in Cape Town are again in the spotlight amid allegations that Sunday's devastating wildfire was started by a homeless person.

The runaway fire started near Rhodes Memorial, but soon spread to the University of Cape Town, where it destroyed several buildings, including the historical special collections library.

News24 visited Deer Park and District Six to find out more about the vicinity where the man, arrested for allegedly starting another fire, was staying on the mountain slopes. 

Frederick Mhangazo, 35, lives in a makeshift structure on the slopes of the mountain. He was apprehended by a resident and law enforcement on Sunday night.

He appeared in court on a charge of arson on Tuesday. 

According to SANParks rangers, many of the homeless in the area were removed after the fire and the mountain remained temporarily closed to the public.

Yazeed Evans, who was involved in the arrest of the man accused of arson, told News24 he does not believe the suspect they apprehended is linked to the wildfire, which had wreaked havoc since Sunday.

"There is no one staying on the mountains. We usually see people doing church rituals on the mountain, but no one is staying there."

Evans said his family did not feel safe.

"We've had people stand on the mountain and look at us for several minutes, and it's just that we enjoy our privacy. We are aware that two other guys, who were with the suspect, is still at large," he added. 

News24 attempted to speak to the homeless staying on the mountain, but could not find anyone.

Residents from District Six and Vredehoek, however, expressed concerns about people openly making fires on the mountain's slopes.

This, they say, is a major problem, which has exacerbated the risk of fires.

Devils Peak Vredehoek Neighbourhood Watch member Vito Paparella said: "This has been going on for years and, throughout the lockdown, it's gotten worse. Many of the homeless in the area break the law and start fires in parks and on Table Mountain, which is not allowed."

Paparella said it was all about upholding the law. 

READ | 'It's gone from worse to unacceptable': Cape Town residents raise concerns as homeless numbers grow

District Six Neighbourhood watch member Nellis Beyers said the issue around the homeless was a complex matter.

"The current fires are just a reminder why all laws need to be enforced, no matter who it is that breaks them. If we made a braai in the mountain, we would have been cuffed immediately, but because it is a homeless person it is being allowed."

He said millions of rand have been wasted because of homeless people being held to a separate set of unwritten laws.

Beyers added that the money used for the firefighting efforts could have been used to put a task team together, to come up with a solution to the influx of homelessness in Cape Town.

The Table Mountain National Park's initial investigation indicated the origin of the fire was from a "vacated vagrant fire".

WATCH | Cape Town fire: Man suspected of arson appears in court

Meanwhile, the City of Cape Town has been criticised for its handling of homeless people in the city. 

Law group Ndifuna Ukwazi said it is gearing up for another legal tussle, having filed court papers earlier this month to challenge the City's by-laws.

The law group says the City has "criminalised homelessness" and infringed on fundamental human rights.

Attorney Jonty Cogger said he was concerned that many Cape Town residents have a "short-sighted view of the homeless community".

He said:

A person may struggle with homelessness due to myriad reasons, including poverty, a shortage of affordable housing, mental health issues, substance abuse, a lack of state assistance and discrimination. It is not helpful to point fingers and ask for tougher policing measures. Stricter policing will not resolve the root causes of homelessness.


Mayoral committee member for safety and security, JP Smith, said the situation regarding the influx of homeless people was unfortunate. 

"The criminal justice system has a disregard for the City's by-laws. The City has a wide variety of interventions and, for the last year-and-a-half, the courts have had no regard for the City's by-laws." 

Commenting on Ndifuna Ukwazi's court action, Smith added: "They will not succeed. The City's by-laws are sensitive and not hostile. If you consider our by-laws next to any other municipality, ours are more sensitive. It would have a huge impact on municipalities across the country."


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