The city of Durban is decked out in the colours of the 21st International Aids Conference. Thousands of delegates from around the world have spent the last week debating, discussing and plotting the way forward in the global response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
But as the conference halls are packed with the best minds focussed on HIV/AIDS, outside in the streets of the city, the realities of HIV/AIDS are inextricably linked to the social and economic milieu of the city.
Three million South Africans living with HIV are yet to access the lifesaving antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. There are however currently 3,5 million people on the treatment in South Africa. And the country’s roll out of ARV treatment has been hailed as one of the most successful public health interventions in recent times.
But as delegates discuss the possibility of eradicating HIV/AIDS in our lifetime, it is crucial to understand that making treatment more accessible is not enough in itself.
Certainly, the experience of homeless people in Durban is testimony to this.
Twenty-four-year old Nhanhla Mjadu, was sleeping on the floor of a Durban carpark with his friend Wanda when police arrived to evict them. They collected Wanda and threw him into the back of a van.
Nhanhla however managed to escape. In the meanwhile, Wanda, 24, dropped a blue plastic packet in his tussle with police. He screamed out but the police took off with him. When they had left, Nhanhla picked up the little plastic bag. He knew they were important. These were Wanda’s ARVs.
Keeping up appearances
It’s routine procedure. In Durban, as in Cape Town, as in every other major city in the world, every time there is an international event held in the city, the city manager or mayor’s office send local police or private security “clean up” the city.
Most famously, before the FIFA World Cup in 2010, street children were picked up in the Durban Central Business District and dropped off in another town. To inflict such cruelty in the name of a game, the beautiful game that is meant to inspire and bring joy to same children, was declared ‘necessary evil’ given the impossible terms and conditions forwarded by FIFA on South Africa.
And according to residents of the CBD, over the past two weeks, metro police conducted a series of early morning raids on homeless people, living in parks, under bridges and on the streets.
As a Durbanite myself, I know these raids happen from time to time, entirely unrelated to any event happening in the city. These evictions however were most certainly linked to the AIDS conference that was hosted in the city this week.
To sell your obligations to your people in the name of FIFA is crime enough, but to deliberately remove the homeless people from the city, in a bid to make the city “appear” clean for international researchers, policymakers and politicians looking to address a health calamity, is an injudicious absurdity.
It smacks of impunity and a lack of accountability.
Scourge of homelessness
Nhanhla told us that while he had no idea where his friend Wanda is, he speculates that he was dropped off in KwaDakauza, about 70km away from Durban.
“It has happened many times, and it will take 25-29 hours to walk back,” he said. “The problem is that he needs these medicines and I don’t know if he has that much time.”
When we met Nhanhla, he was on his way to the Denis Hurley centre to have a shower. The centre, in Cathedral road in the CBD, offers showers and meals to the needy. With nowhere to call home, and no place to keep his belongings safe, he carries Wanda’s treatment where he goes. The other option was to put it into the gutters where the homeless in Durban usually hide their blankets and clothes.
Because it is so unsafe on the streets, the social workers at the Dennis Hurley clinic keep ARV and TB medication for 16 HIV positive people who come in everyday to take their medication. Two people on AIDS medication haven’t turned up for the past week. Busi Shangase, a social worker at the clinic, says she can’t be sure if they were evicted or were in this case just negligent. But she says the evictions are so routine that even her patients are so used to police brutality, that in most cases the are not even angry when it happen.
“So they come in, (and say) ‘Uff they took my treatment,’ and then we start all over again,” she said. “It’s just a waste of money, government money.”
Raymond Perrier, manager of the Dennis Hurley centre said the city has no intention of finding ways to include the homeless. Many sleep in terrible conditions in privately “shelters” that charge $2 to $6 per person per night.
There is simply no political imagination when it comes to the scourge of homelessness in Durban.
Instead, whenever the city needs to put on a show, officials send out the cars to collect the homeless drop them off some place just far enough from the main event itself so that when they do eventually return, the show will be over.
Insiders say that the police know the operation is futile, but just follow instructions.
“Unfortunately they get away with it because they’re only held to account for the glitz of the conference, not for the reality of the lives of the people here,” Perrier said.
But not to be alarmed.
Durban says it wants to be “Africa’s most caring and livable city by 2030”.
I guess we’ll have to wait until then for the rights of everyone in this city to be protected.