Informed people live longer
18 September 2014 11:29 (South Africa)
Opinionista Mark Heywood

Future or no future? The choice is ours.

  • Mark Heywood
Is South Africa’s social and economic trajectory fixed? Will growing social inequality, which is an indignity and a daily assault on hope and possibility, lead to a point where the Marikana massacre will be looked back on as just a harbinger of the new reality? 

Serious and bloody social conflict seems inevitable: most of the fifty million lives in our country are not pretty. Daily indignities accrue from going to the toilet, trying to wash, sending children to failing schools, queuing for medical attention in failing hospitals, working for arrogant, uncaring (still mainly white) bosses – if you work at all. 

These assaults cannot accrue forever without provoking a response. People cannot, and should not have to, endure the lives they are forced to live. The convulsions, when they come, will not be pretty. Neither will they be contained in far flung villages.

So what should decent people now be doing? Rather pathetically, when a tragedy like Marikana occurs, it evokes a froth of excitement from across the political spectrum. There are bona fide attempts to address the wounds. But at the same time, failed socialists come out of their hides; ex-presidents speak out; and allegedly corrupt individuals like Julius Malema, who have used politics to hide their dirtier deeds, fan the flames. There’s a perverse glee that cannot hide behind the crocodile tears. “At last the centre is ripping,” they think. 

Honest citizens need to stand up now and disassociate themselves from the rot. But if the trajectory is this clear, is now not the time to try now to try and change it? Why should we wait for the flames to engulf us?

In the frenzied analytical hum, people point to a lack of leadership in government, business, the trade unions and civil society. But the problem is a deeper one. It is a lack of vision and belief that things can be different. It is the loss of an ability to decide, and then act without fear or favour, against what is wrong. 

Much of what blights our country could be changed. It does not change because politics has become a game played by people who live in the upper realms of the social ether. They throw brick-bats at each other, grab the attention of the media, send flurries of chatter through the Twitter waves. But despite all the sound and fury, the disputatiousness, they enjoy the game they are playing, even when the pieces are the poor.

In this game, almost every move is infected by out-of-date ideologies, a thrusting of swords where none of the swordsmen (for they are mostly men) ever get hurt, or finish one or another off. But the game leaves society at a perpetual impasse. There are jousts over health care, economic policy, job creation. After a good supper and a few hours’ sleep, the daily return to the joust, in different forums – Parliament, newspapers, NEDLAC, endless-pointless policy conferences – prevents anyone going anywhere. Ironically, a denial of consensus suits the beneficiaries of the stasis. The rich stay rich. The corrupt and politically savvy get rich. But because nothing can ever be properly monitored, nobody is ever made clearly responsible or held to account. 

And thus it is that the basic tenets by which a civilisation is measured go backwards rather than forwards.

The biggest tragedy is that this game, although played entirely in their name, is not felt by the poor, except as a black hole. On a visit to inspect toilets of Limpopo schools earlier this year, I found it striking how little the babble really means once you get 50kms outside of Johannesburg. It’s an absurd theatre. It doesn’t bring books or clean toilets, or put corrupt politicians and businesspeople in prison. 

The massacre at Marikana was a manifestation of this. The mineworkers literally took to the hills because all the people who claimed them as constituents – be they trade unions, churches or the mine owners – had no impact on their lives. Whilst they play the game in the halls of power, they’ve forgotten that the pieces they play with (the pieces that dig their platinum, pay their union subs, fear their Gods) actually, think and feel and suffer.

It is time for a new politics. It is time to define a moral centre based on justice, dignity and concern for the people of the earth and the climate that envelops it. And to fight for it fast.

In 2001, for example, it was possible to rally a broad swathe of society to support the rights of poor people to have access to anti-retroviral medicines and to demand that the patent power of multinational pharmaceutical companies should play second fiddle to this right. Today, millions of people are alive as a result. Why can a similar mass not stand up to defeat the barriers to decent schooling, health care or even unemployment?

Building such a cross-class consensus might be seen as a political heresy. The left might argue that it is naïve, adding that it does not understand that it is capitalism that underlies most of these problems – and that the solution therefore lies in the removal of capitalism. And yes, comrades, there is no doubt that capitalism (however ill-defined a concept that is today) is responsible for many social ills. But responsible citizens can’t wait for after the final assault – because it’s not coming soon. 

And by the time it does, the world will be wasted.

Add to this the fact that the world has changed. In the 21st century, the people who suffer the consequences of unfettered capitalism are more numerous than they ever were. And they escape traditional class bands. The comfortable middle class and employed feel the effects of climate change, environmental destruction and crime. But these same people need to be persuaded to take a stand for decency. Solidarity with the mineworkers. Solidarity with the right to a decent life. 

On the other hand, the left must get out of its hidebound rhetoric. Talking only to the poor is emasculating our own movement. Indeed it keeps the poor poor. Ironically, it allows the gatekeepers of the ‘class struggle’ to continue to live the lives of Cabinet ministers.

Thanks to generations of trade unionists, socialists and all stripes of activists, ‘the people’ have much greater legal and social power than they did in 1848, 1917 or 1968. In South Africa, the greatest source of this power is in the Constitution’s promise of equality, human dignity – and a constantly improving (rather than deteriorating) society. Political parties may continue to play politics. But good citizens must insist on a separation between the constitutionally prescribed legal duties of government and the games politicians play. The government must be made to do what the Constitution tells it to do – that is, prioritise equality, dignity and improving life. 

The challenge is effectively and consistently to mobilise around the rights in the Constitution, the best tool bequeathed to us by the generations who fought for freedom, including the Marikana dead. 

Or should we rather wait for the flames? DM

  • Mark Heywood
mark heywood

Mark Heywood is Executive Director of SECTION27 and an Executive member of the Treatment Action Campaign.

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