Listening to Cape Talk 567 yesterday afternoon, as is occasionally my wont, I heard “writer, journalist and stand-up comedian” Marianne Thamm accuse Cape Town City Council of making an “fascist and unacceptable” decision. (oh, the drama!)
What they (well, actually what the Good Hope Subcouncil) had done was agreed on a motion to remove “problematic” benches on Government Avenue and find designers to “create pieces of functional art that would encourage sitting rather than sleeping”. [link]
Please note: This isn’t a blog post about whether or not this is a good idea. This is a blog post about misplaced and mistimed outrage.
You can listen to Ms Thamm’s mini-rant on soundcloud. The first voice you’ll hear is sycophantic presenter John Maytham who in his introduction makes this all about street people when actually, it’s not, and then professes his enjoyment of talking with Ms Thamm.
Let’s listen out for an impartial and tough interview then.
Anyway, enough preamble. Let’s fast forward to about 55 seconds into the interview.
Ms Thamm has the floor:
I get the point, people say somebody else wants to sit there, well you’ve lost out: somebody’s having a nap, on the bench that he’s allowed to lie on.
I’m afraid I’m going to have to stop you there, Marianne. Because you’re actually factually incorrect.
Let’s have a quick check of the Cape Town bylaws (a copy of each of which is available on the City’s website) (maybe use the free wifi in the Company’s Garden to access it) (although you might have to stand up), shall we?
The Public Parks – 2010 bylaw, Section 11, subsection 1, part (j) clearly states:
(No person shall, in a public park —) lie on a bench or seating-place or use it in such a manner that prevents others from using it;
Again, I’m not saying that this is or isn’t a good idea for a bylaw. I’m just stating that it actually is the prevailing bylaw.
See, the issue, as Councillor Dave Bryant sees it, is that:
if you have someone falling asleep on the benches for a long time it means many other people can’t use that public space for a while.
So John Maytham’s follow up point: “if there was a family of three Dutch tourists sitting on the bench, you wouldn’t be able to sit there” is moot, because they wouldn’t be breaking the bylaw, because they would be using the bench to sit on, not to lie on.
And even then, when he suggests that, were you to find said trio of Dutch tourists occupying your seating area of choice, you should go and find somewhere else “like a cafe chair or the grass” to sit, well, that’s fine. As it would be for homeless people too. Because yes, you can go and sit somewhere else. Sitting isn’t the issue. Lying on the benches is the issue.
What the Council is proposing is to replace the benches with “pieces of functional art” (or, “chairs” as you may know them) which encourages people not to break the existing bylaw. Having “chairs” prevents people sleeping on the benches, which avoids the local law enforcement officials having to get shirty with them and thus removes a point of potential conflict.
Ms Thamm is barking up the wrong tree (incidentally, there’s lots of stuff about trees in the 2010 Public Parks bylaw too).
What she should have done is complained about the silly “fascist” bylaw when it was promulgated, back in September 2010. There’s a very clear explanation of the bylaw formulation and approval process plan on the city’s website, which includes, ever so clearly at Step 5, public participation.
But you didn’t bother to object then, when the public was asked for its opinion, you just start moaning now, three years too late.
Stable door, bolted horse.
Her protest plan (thankfully not involving poo) of having “a nap-in” is belated at best. And it’ll be even more belated because she’s going to wait for it to get a bit warmer so that people will join in:
…when the sun comes out, because no-one wants to lie on a bench in the rain
Right on, sista! A luta continua once spring comes along!
And then, the pièce de résistance: her suggestion that the annual Infecting The City project should provide some benches for the homeless. Yes! They could do that if they weren’t so involved in spending their time and our public money on wrapping sodding bog roll around trees on the station concourse.
Maybe, the City will look again at this. Maybe they won’t. But all in all, this a hilarious and embarrassing episode for everyone concerned. Especially the ever so outraged Ms Thamm.
UPDATE: Some clarification here.