Alberts Farm shines a light on the complexity of roaming …

A man draws water from Gauteng’s only artesian well, located in the Alberts Farm Conservancy. People come from all over Gauteng to collect water here. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

The bottom line is that no one can live in public parks. If you allow one person to live there, you’ve set a precedent for others to live there, and it becomes a slippery slope. Parks are not intended or designed to be inhabited – they are there for the recreational enjoyment of all residents.

Philip Kruger is DA Councilor for Ward 86 in Johannesburg.

Mark Heywood’s article (Why can’t we live together? The conflict between commuters and homeless in a park in Johannesburg) highlights the very complex issue of homelessness in Johannesburg, an issue that affects all cities and for which a thoughtful approach is needed to deal with it in a sensitive and caring manner. When you add the conservation of a sensitive environment to an urban setting that must accommodate a variety of actors, this issue becomes even more complex.

I would like to provide more information on the history of efforts by the local community and stakeholders to deal with the variety of issues at Alberts Farm, which have resulted in, among other things, the erection of the fence.

Alberts Farm Park is unique in that it comprises four completely different areas: the cultivated park, pristine grasslands, wetlands, and an ecologically sensitive rock outcrop. The last three are recognized areas of biodiversity that deserve to be conserved. Conservation here means preserving these areas for the enjoyment of all residents and balancing the needs and interests of the various stakeholders who use the park.

There have been many challenges to the conservation of the park over the past 30 years, which have led to the degradation of parts of it. These include: cyclists using poorly planned routes, Parkrun, illegal religious groups setting fires in the park, opening anthills, pouring salt into the dam and displaced people using the park as a dwelling, making illegal fires. .

Over the years Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo (JCPZ), the Friends of Alberts Farm (FoAF) and successive Neighborhood Councilors have attempted to engage with all of these groups, as well as surrounding landowners, through public meetings, educational bylaw brochures, and direct engagement – all with mixed success. Groups like cyclists and Parkrun were very accommodating and made an effort to modify their itineraries to have less impact on the area.

Groups like churches and internally displaced people, on the other hand, were unresponsive to these commitments, to the point of threatening FoAF members and JCPZ officials.

Most religious groups continue to use the park without considering other users or the environment, which is unfortunate given the importance many religious groups place on these spaces across the city.

Over the years, many residents as well as other park users have complained of being ambushed, assaulted and robbed by criminal elements using the porous nature of the park’s perimeter. Security groups found the park to be the ideal refuge soon after thefts in the area. The park is also the victim of massive illegal dumping of household refuse, construction rubble and even human remains in singular cases.

During the public meetings with FoAF and other stakeholders, we engaged with the communities surrounding the park, and they were overwhelmingly in favor of fencing as a solution to some of these issues. JCPZ recognized the long history of various issues affecting the park and agreed to install the fence.

The 3 million rand fence around the park. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

While I appreciate Mark’s sensitive approach to revealing the humanity of the displaced people living in the park, the bottom line is that we can’t have anyone living in public parks. If you allow one person to live there, you’ve set a precedent for others to live there, and it becomes a slippery slope. Parks are not intended or designed to be inhabited – they are there for the recreational enjoyment of all residents.

I certainly agree that it is possible to integrate displaced people into the economy of the parks, given their knowledge of the area and the commitment of some to keep it clean. The DA has long advocated for properly trained rangers to maintain the rule of law in parks to make them safe and attractive to all residents. There is certainly a case to be made in training displaced people as park wardens, guides and guardian teams. Parks can and should be an essential part of Johannesburg life – we all benefit from being outdoors and I think most people take great pride in the state of the natural environment.

The fence around Alberts Farm Park is only one approach to solving the many issues facing the park, and should not be seen solely as a way to keep some people out. However, it is a reality that people cannot experience in a public park. The city of Johannesburg needs better shelters and a better approach to tackle homelessness, but for now we need to respect the law, while showing care and respect for those made vulnerable by the current economic crisis that all residents are facing. SM / MC


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