Today, World Homeless Day, marks the official launch of a civil society campaign to decriminalise poverty-related by-laws in South Africa. We reject the effective criminalisation of poverty through municipal by-laws currently targeting the poor and the most marginalised in South Africa.
Various South African municipalities enforce by-laws criminalising or penalising conduct related to the performance of life-sustaining activities in public spaces. Examples include the prohibition of persons from loitering or sleeping in public spaces; the solicitation of a vehicle driver for the purpose of guarding the vehicle; making a fire on a beach; pushing a trolley on a highway; begging; or washing in a public bathroom.
Such by-laws indirectly discriminate against some of the most marginalised people in society, including homeless people, sex workers, drug users, migrants and informal traders. These groups are more likely to engage in the prohibited conduct described given their socio-economic circumstances and their reliance on the informal sector. In addition, the implementation of the by-laws by law enforcement sometimes results in harassment, confiscation of possessions, and violence.
This Campaign joins other civil society networks on the continent under the “Decriminalising and Reclassifying Petty Offences in Africa” campaign. Various African countries – particularly those historically colonized by Britain – have by-law originating from England’s Vagrancy Act of 1824 which criminalises various ‘nuisance’ behaviours. In 2017, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) adopted the Principles on the Decriminalisation of Petty Offences in Africa (the ‘Principles’). The purpose of the Principles is to guide states on the decriminalisation of petty offences in Africa. The Principles establish clear standards against which petty offences created by law or by-law should be assessed, while they promote measures that can be taken by State Parties to ensure that such laws do not target persons based on their social origin, social status or fortune by criminalising life-sustaining activities.
The decision to launch the South African campaign on World Homeless Day is motivated by the fact that homelessness is a prominent global issue affecting thousands of people who are in dire need of protection. The Campaign launched today advocates that homelessness and vagrancy issues need to be dealt with using a rights-based, social development and harm reduction approach. This is contrary to current strategies by municipalities and law enforcement officers perpetuating the stigmatisation of poverty by mandating a punitive and reactionary criminal-justice response to what are socio-economic and sustainable development issues.
The key objectives of the Campaign are to advocate for the decriminalisation of discriminatory by-laws, through the following means:
- Advocating for the use of social justice and harm reduction responses to dealing with vagrancy and related issues, as opposed to the current punitive and reactionary criminal justice response;
- Reviewing and where necessary demanding the repeal of discriminatory municipal by-laws;
- Conducting research and consulting with the public and those directly affected on current practices of by-law enforcement; and
- Changing the narrative and popular perceptions of the poor by challenging stereotypes about homeless people and other similarly marginalised groups.
Current Campaign members include Africa Criminal Justice Reform (Dullah Omar Institute, University of the Western Cape), African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum, Ashraf Mahomed, Centre for Human Rights (University of Pretoria), Lawyers for Human Rights, National Association of Democratic Lawyers, Sonke Gender Justice, and U-Turn.
We encourage all interested individuals, organisations and institutions to become part of this important campaign and to advocate for change.