“I don’t need you to feel sorry for me. I want you to talk to me. I want you to see me. I want you to acknowledge my humanity. I want you to greet me. I’m human too.”
These were the words of the late Cape Town homeless activist Danny Oosthuizen in his front-page lead story in the city’s leading daily newspaper, the Cape Argus, in 2016 to introduce The Dignity Project.
As editor of the newspaper at the time, I drove the editorial series that collaborated with the homeless people of Cape Town to tell their stories. Danny would become the voice of the homeless as a weekly columnist, giving the homed of the city a glimpse into the lives of the housing insecure.
Danny’s work over the next three years before he passed away from illness was groundbreaking. His advocacy thawed hearts hardened against the most vulnerable citizens in our city. His voice eased the tension between business in the CBD and those who lived on the streets.
Six years later, having never met Danny, activists Soli Philander and Bryan Torien have picked up the baton. It’s a simple idea forged in Danny’s immortal words:
“Provide the homeless with a meal, but more importantly, sit down with them, listen to them, and let them feeling they belong.”Danny Oosthuizen
In 2021, Soli and Bryan laid on a decadent Christmas lunch under the bridge formed by the elevated highways in Green Point for the homeless who live there. It was a spread fit for royalty as Soli, Bryan and their team served the homeless community.
Soli used his profile as an actor and broadcaster to open doors to sponsorships. Bryan cooked up a storm.
At the time, Cape Town had declared war on the homeless in a series of draconian hits. It was a throwback to the previous Mayor Dan Plato’s approach to the challenge of the housing insecure.
When the lockdown began, the City of Cape Town rounded up the homeless and dumped them in a massive marquee tent that had outraged human rights activists.
The move was to protect the homeless from the COVID-19 pandemic during lockdown. But it was viewed as cynical and opportunist. Many claimed they were held against their will and could not leave of their own volition.
Even during lockdown, City of Cape Town law enforcement officers fined homeless people for being homeless. The act of loitering. Inevitably, the fine cannot be paid. A court appearance follows.
Those without a fixed abode can’t get bail and it’s a stint awaiting trial in Pollsmoor Prison for up to six months.
To a homeless person it may very well be a death sentence.
The current mayor, Geordin Hill-Lewis, has made interventions with programmes and infrastructural projects for the homeless. But the hardened attitudes that Danny helped thaw among the rank and file in the city is back.
Soli’s work with the housing insecure through the Soli Philander Foundation isn’t a once-off, every-Christmas affair. He knows families and individuals well and spends time with them. There is often a meal and other items like clothing and other essentials he brings. On one occasion, he arranged a much-needed wheelchair for a man with a disability.
Bryan is a hard taskmaster who demands the best for his Christmas lunch. He made the writer of this piece arrange an iftar – or breaking of the fast – during Ramadan last year for the folks living under the bridge.
Ahead of the 2022 Christmas lunch, with the venue moving to the courtyard of the Springfield Terraces in District Six, Bryan promised a bigger and better event. He has also established the Breaking Boundaries Building Bridges organisation in the run up to the second annual lunch.
“There is misinformation and it’s disingenuous of the City of Cape Town to say that these people should all go to shelters because the City of Cape Town doesn’t tell you there are 20 000 housing insecure people on the streets and only 1 800 beds in shelters,” explains Bryan as he prepares a practice run of his delicious butter chicken.
“Every time they say they want people to get into shelters, they are lying through their teeth. There is not enough space. They are only interested in cleaning up the streets in the epicentre of town, where it is an eyesore to tourists.”
Bryan and his team cooked four courses including a seafood gratin as a starter, butter chicken with roti, roast chicken and roast leg of lamb, akhni, and yellow rice and potatoes.
There was also a savoury Cape Malay dessert called boeber and other sweet treats for the guests. Father Christmas was there too as members of the public were invited to sit down and listen.
It’s as if Danny had reached out to Bryan and Soli.
“There is a sense of a national – and it may even be an international – perception that Cape Town is a city that really is mean to our housing insecure people. We are mean and disregarding and somehow we judge them as less human,” Soli says with a heavy heart.
“With Christmas Lunch Under the Bridge the ethic that lives in Cape Town, the hegemony, the culture, the history, is one of: ‘Are you hungry? Did you say you were hungry? Come eat!'”
“You really have to get this: the majority of our constituency, the bulk of the housing insecure that we serve, are South Africans. They are Capetonian and they’re indigenous. The idea that we are dealing with these odd anomalies, weirdos, failures of life … the stark reality is that it’s people just like you and me.”
That is exactly what Danny said in that very first article he wrote in the Cape Argus.
“Every one of us is one bad decision, one pay cheque away from this reality,” says Soli.
“You are a Capetonian and this is happening to people in your name. That a person born in this place lies on a pavement, desperate, and law enforcement can come and kick them awake and fine them. Why? Because you say so.”
What is Christmas Lunch Under the Bridge trying to achieve?
“More than the food we’re cooking is that we get to sit down with the guests. It’s an amalgamated team effort. All I do is the cooking,” explains Bryan. “The rest of the team does the décor and the table arrangements, and they make this possible.”
“We create an environment where we can sit down with our guests, we can listen to them, and we can show them we care about them, and we haven’t forgotten about them. That is the idea behind Christmas Lunch Under the Bridge.”
Danny would have been proud.
Gasant Arbarder is the author of Hack With A Grenade, and Media Manager at UWC.
Featured image: Jon Tyson/Unsplash