The Grime of Ward 54

Since Tony Leon’s infamous Fight Back (or Fight Black) election slogan, DA officials have made numerous gaffes which have reinforced popular perception that it is a shrill, reactionary, anti-poor and, by extension, anti-black political party. These utterances have evoked sentiments in me which have ranged from frustration to outright indignation, depending on the degree with which I felt the party officials had misrepresented South Africa’s political landscape. However, little would prepare for the outright contempt I would feel when I read a Facebook post by DA councillor Shayne Ramsay who had mobilised her constituency against the so-called vagrants who cohabited Ward 54 in Sea Point.

There were several aspects of the post which stirred in me an anger which provoked me into scribing my thoughts. The first was the merit, or lack thereof, of the transgression. While I understand that the destitute serve as the antithesis to socio-economic dynamic which binds the Ward 54 community, there is something unsettling when the privilege uses the exceptionally disproportional power at their disposal against the underprivileged. Even more so when the privileged co-opts government institutions against the very people they are mandated to serve and whom they have so grossly neglected. Then there is also the consideration that all this is taking place against the backdrop of Sea Point, one of the many exclusionary enclaves of Cape Town which continue to capture the raison d’etre of the apartheid system. Within this commune, the offenses of begging, solicitation and loitering pale in comparison to the historical dispossession which defines this space and for which its victims have received little to no restitution.

I was also angered by the rhetoric employed by Ramsay in her call to action to her Ward 54 constituency. The destitute and landless were collectively referenced to as ‘the grime’ as if their dirt-ridden bodies were merely extensions of psyches which willingly chose an existence of abject poverty and indignity. Grime in the sense that these people were no different to the refuse bins come vagrant ‘buffet tables’ (Ramsey’s words) which momentarily blighted this beachfront utopia prior to their weekly removal. Grime in the manner in which the Ward 54’s destitute was perceived as being devoid of humanness and therefore underserving of any humanity.

I was also left infuriated because the landless and destitute, the so called grime, are a collective known to me and millions of South Africans who were not the beneficiaries of the apartheid. Whose destitution was not a matter of choice but rather a result of the myriad societal ills which accompanied the violent marginalisation of our people for generation after generation.Whose very destitution is because those of us who were able to forge a modicum of existence by conforming to an imposed benchmark of humaneness – escaping ‘the grime’ through a combination of circumstance and luck – could do so for ourselves only. Like immigrants seeking a better life in a land of our own but which was never ours, the destitute – or the grime – are the friends and family we were begrudgingly forced to leave behind.

Since writing this riposte, Councilor Ramsey has removed her Facebook post and unreservedly apologized for the offense she has caused, particularly ‘the grime’ who has now seemingly been afforded the privilege to be referred to as the homeless. Like many of her counterparts, this apology will suffice. Ramsey will continue to preside over her position as ward 54 councilor, maintaining her responsibility for the welfare of the vulnerable, the erstwhile grime, she had so defiantly mobilized against. She will set forth on her day as a public servant who caused great offense, issued an apology and will continue to preside over her constituency as if nothing happened. For the DA who has and continues to position itself as the converse to the unaccountable ANC, the irony – as always- will remain tragic.