Held ‘to ransom’

Business and hotel representatives on a walkabout at Greenmarket Square on Thursday February 6.

The city centre is being held ransom by the refugees living on Greenmarket Square.

This was the feeling at an impact risk assessment walkabout held by Cape Town Tourism with some of its members in the hospitality industry, on Thursday February 6

Tensions were high among the group of hotel and business owners who joined the walkabout, and who seemed to be at their wits end with frustration.

Business owner Ed Saunders questioned the walkabout, asked why it had taken Cape Town Tourism to hold the risk assessment despite the refugees being on the Greenmarket Square since October last year.

He gave Cape Town Tourism seven days to come up with a way forward for its members.

“The fact that Cape Town Tourism only called the assessment now is disgusting. We want a plan after seven days, he said.”

Managers of hotels and business owners say they are losing business because people are scared to visit the Greenmarket Square.

They are frustrated with rubbish in the area, tents being pitched in the middle of the road, and fights and altercations among refugee groups.

The refugees sought shelter in the Methodist Mission Church after they were evicted from Waldorf Arcade in October last year.

They said they felt unsafe in South Africa, and wanted to be anywhere else, but in this country.

The refugees had since split into two rival factions because of a power struggle between leaders JP Balous and Papy Sukami – those who live outside the church, and those who live inside the church.

Both Mr Balous and Mr Sumaki were arrested and are out on bail, with one of the conditions being that they were barred from entering the city centre, unless they were attending court.

Since then, all the role-players, including the City of Cape Town, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and various NGOs have been meeting to discuss a solution, but no solution or solid plan has been formed yet.

Human Rights commissioner, Chris Nissen, had since withdrawn his assistance, following threats from Mr Balous before the matter was heard in court. He had opened a case of intimidation.

The City had brought an urgent order before the Cape Town High Court to enforce its street by-laws as the situation on Greenmarket Square had become a crisis, which was affecting businesses, traders and tourism in the city. The case was postponed to Monday February 17 for judgement (“Refugee case postponed”, CapeTowner, January 30).

And while everyone waits for the judgement, fighting between refugee groups has spread fear among traders and visitors to the area.

According to police, two assault cases were opened on Monday February 3 stemming from fights between the groups, and last week, four cases of assault were opened following an altercation between the two groups, during which someone was stabbed in the face (“Rival refugees in stand-off”, CapeTowner, February 6).

There are also tents and shelters being erected in Burg and Longmarket streets.

General manager at 40 on Burg Street, Tosca Korver, came to the walkabout anxiously, and said she had just argued with the refugees because Law Enforcement asked them to move their things from the entrance of the hotel.

“People fight at the door often – it’s like they are targeting me… I feel threatened.”

She said while enforcing the by-laws was important, what was more urgent is the fact that there is a criminal element among the groups now.

“They are fighting all the time and there are dangerous weapons involved. That is criminal – it’s scary. My guests have to be escorted out of the hotel.”

Ms Korver said late last night, there were noise complaints due to loud music and whistling emanating from the group, while Law Enforcement officers who are stationed on the square stood by.

“This is international now, and Cape Town is going down. The right people who can give answers are shifting blame to the different spheres of government.” The general manager of Onomo Hotel, Mynhardt Dejongh, said there are constant complaints about cleanliness and noise, and guests are leaving the hotel.

“We are all waiting for a judgement, but what happens in the meantime? The City and the provincial government are ultimately responsible for what happens in the city. There are open fires on the streets. People can’t eat at restaurants because of the smell of urine in the air.”

The Central City Improvement District (CCID) security manager, Muneeb Hendricks, said the comments by the members would be included in a report by Cape Town Tourism. “We cannot have this,” he said.

CCID CEO Tasso Evangelinos said they were very concerned the situation had been allowed to become completely untenable. “The primary agencies involved are the Department of Home Affairs and the SA Police Force: the onus is on them to resolve the situation.”

He said while the CCID had been repeatedly asked what they were doing to resolve the situation, they were not mandated, nor equipped to deal with it.

He said for many of the businesses, the situation has been disastrous, with wider implications for businesses as well as residents, and this also impacted on business owners and residents who were not in and around Greenmarket Square but within the CBD.

“The image of the central city as a welcoming destination to tourists as well as locals had been very badly affected.

“Apart from discouraging people from visiting the area, the refugee crisis has had severe financial consequences for many businesses, that may well lead to job losses in the current economic climate.”

He said the CCID had in the interim provided additional cleaning and safety services to businesses, and were lobbying the primary agencies to speedily resolve the issues.

Cape Town Central police spokesperson, Captain Ezra October, said all related cases were being handled by one detective.

He said while he understood the frustration of the business owners, it was a sensitive situation and among the refugees, there were vulnerable people. He said while they were trying to assist with crime among the refugees, it was important that affected parties persist, stayed in meetings, and follow through with complaints. “We have plans, but they are being refused by the refugee leaders. We have to keep at it.”

Cape Town Tourism CEO, Enver Duminy, said following the walkabout, Cape Town Tourism will continue to advocate the concerns of the tourism industry with the relevant authorities and keep the members who were affected updated.

“With Greenmarket Square being a top destination for visitors exploring the CBD the ongoing refugee crisis at the Methodist Church is of great concern to Cape Town Tourism. Despite Cape Town Tourism having no mandate or power to resolve the situation, due to the concerns raised by members, an area walkabout was organised to ensure that various bodies like the City of Cape Town, SAPS, and the CCID hear their concerns.

“The unfortunate reality for both the refugees and businesses in the area is that this is a legal process and all stakeholders need to respect that process.”