South Africa

Dear South African: You want the change? Be one.

By Mandy De Waal 15 March 2013

Stories on chaotic public health care systems and schools in crisis are regular features on Daily Maverick, and often the reader response is: “What can I do; how can I help?” There is no definitive answer, but here are some pointers about what civic-minded people could do if they want to make a difference to some of the social problems facing South Africa. By MANDY DE WAAL.

In the Eastern Cape children are sitting in overcrowded, derelict schools on concrete blocks trying to write in their exercise books by pressing down on their legs because they have no desks. Mail & Guardian recently did a tour of schools in that province which still has 400 mud schools, and asked a pupil how does he feel about having no desk and using a pit toilet.

Her reply: “But… what else is there?”

Across the country in Nelspruit, patients and medical staff joined hands on Friday 08 March 2013 to protest against a water shortage that has left the Themba Hospital without this essential service since January. A couple of days earlier doctors marched to the provincial legislature in a desperate bid to get the water crisis sorted out. The disaster has virtually brought health care provision at the hospital to a standstill.

Stories like these feature almost daily in Daily Maverick, bearing testimony to the large-scale dysfunction in our social systems which causes many to suffer; and when they do, readers often ask: “How can we help?” or “What can we do?” Daily Maverick took these questions to civic leaders to get practical input on what concerned citizens could do to make a difference.

Mark Heywood, the head of the public interest law centre Section27, said the question was a big one, because there’s so much that can be done and needs to be done. “People who are committed to resolving the social challenges of our society have multiple opportunities to engage, depending on what they are interested in,” he said, offering a good clue for people who want to make a difference – get involved with what matters most to you.

“I think people should become more active in public education by participating in school governing bodies,” Heywood says, when asked what the advantaged could do to assist those with less privilege. “If your kids go to a private school, you should be more active in getting that school to twin with a public school so that there is less of a gulf between the two education systems in our country.”

Section27 spends much of its resources targeting South Africa’s education crisis, to try to help children realise their right to access to basic education. The organisation has been working to get the Limpopo government to address the inadequate sanitation at public schools; has been advocating for better education infrastructure; and was at the forefront of the fight against last year’s textbook crisis.

On a more personal note, Heywood says there’s much citizens can do to build bridges or to try to bring balance to what is a very unequal society. “I rode the Argus over the weekend and was surprised that the event was so overwhelmingly white. About 90% of the riders were white, which made me wonder why there’s such a divide. I think sports people and cyclists should think about what they can do to encourage more participation so there’s greater balance and involvement, and so our society isn’t quite so divided.”

In terms of effecting political or structural change to issues like health or education, Heywood says organisations like Section27 and Equal Education are looking at establishing volunteer bases, and that civic-minded citizens should volunteer with organisations making a difference to the big social issues facing this country.

Another of these pressing issues is the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees, which was brought into sharp focus at the end of February after the death in police custody of Mozambique national Mido Macia. Footage taken with a mobile phone showed how the taxi driver was brutalised and dragged behind a police van through the streets of Daveyton on Gauteng’s East Rand.

Refugee rights activist Braam Hanekom set up People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty (Passop) in 2007 to advocate equality and justice for refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in South Africa, by empowering communities to stand up for the rights they are entitled to. Hanekom says that contributing time to organisations like his, and others that protect human rights, is important, as is being pro-active when human rights violations take place.

But the Passop founder says one of the biggest contributions citizens could make in the civic sector would be to free NGOs and civil society organisations from the influence of government. “Ordinary citizens can contribute financially to civic organisations, which, unlike unions, don’t collect fees and must rely on funding to survive,” he explains.

“The reality is that NGOs are cash-strapped and exist in an environment where they are punished financially when speaking out against the ANC or government. Ideally, civil society should retain independence so that it can operate separately from government and big business,” he says.

“What we are seeing is that organisations that depend on government and some big businesses are expected to toe a party line, or bite their tongues. This goes against the role that civil society bodies must play in South Africa,” he says, adding: “To make a big difference, citizens should liberate these organisations and help make them self-sufficient, responsible and accountable to the people of this country. People should help fund, adopt and get involved with civic organisations,” he says.

Poverty and unemployment activist Ayanda Kota says that ordinary citizens who feel moved by the plight of marginalised people should pledge their solidarity with movements that support this sector, like his Unemployed People’s Movement, or Abahlali baseMjondolo, or the Rural Network. “The situation is urgent in this sector because the unemployed and the poor are not being engaged with by government, and the voices of the unemployed and the poor are missing at the boardrooms of those who decide on our fate,” he says.

“Government ministers consult with so-called experts and simply come back and pronounce, but there is no dialogue with us, no process. People who want to help us can come and pledge solidarity with us and their contribution – depending on who they are – could be to help start a dialogue, to help become a bridge, so we can show South Africa the challenges these people face. We need people who can communicate and write and help us petition for change,” he adds.

“The important issue is to meet with these movements, to begin a conversation and to start contributing ideas. We have a situation where activists are under attack while there are multitudes who are without water, electricity, medical care or services. It is an incredibly volatile situation and we all need to do what we can now. We have seen what is happening to the ANC and Cosatu and those who have followed them blindly. These organisations have been captured by the elites and tenderpreneurs – they cannot liberate us. Now we need to liberate ourselves, and we ask those who can help organise to meet with us,” says Kota.

Nicholas Spaull, a researcher in Stellenbosch University’s economics department who focuses on primary schooling in SA and Africa, believes that the best contribution people can make is be by effecting a positive change to the local education system. In his presentation on the inequality and underperformance in our school systems, he explains why.

Spaull shows that the quality, duration and type of education that children have access to directly affect the wages they are able to earn in later life. South Africa is the third most unequal society in the world, Spaull says in his presentation – which is not surprising, given the state of the country’s education system.

Andrew Barrett, who has been involved in programmes that bolster school systems so that disadvantaged learners can improve, despite the flawed structures they find themselves in, says engaging people is what making a difference is all about. “We get that question – ‘How can I help?’ – all the time, and my general response is to invite people down to the centre so they can engage with the beneficiaries we work with,” says Barrett, who is involved with Ikamva Youth and the Siyakhula Education Foundation.

“What’s key is these meeting points and putting people from advantaged backgrounds together with people from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is a huge amount of goodwill amongst South Africans, and often it’s the case that people don’t know what to do. People easily get discouraged by the immensity of the bigger picture, but there is real opportunity for change which often happens on a one-to-one basis. Something magical happens in human contact, when people get to see the face and the story. That’s when ‘us’ and ‘them’ becomes irrelevant, and there’s the realisation that the chasm between South Africans is a lot smaller than people think. This is why a meeting point for people is important,” he adds.

“At our programmes, people can meet with the kids that we help and almost be self-directed to see where they can assist. For example, our tutoring programme looks to put skilled people around the table with kids from township communities, and acts almost as a natural transfer of knowledge, with guidelines of course,” Barret says. “It is just a matter of getting up, walking out your door and seeing what works for you.”

The bottom line is that South Africa is a land in crisis, and there’s much work to be done to contribute to the growth, stability and development of this country. Every person who has the will should stand up and do what they can to try and make a difference. DM

Editor’s note: This is by no means an exhaustive list of where people can help, but the start of an ongoing series that Daily Maverick will run from time to time, to try and offer thoughts about what concerned citizens can do to make a difference to our great, but troubled country. To suggest which organisations should be helped, email

Read more:

  • The shocking state of infrastructure in Limpopo schools at Section27
  • Radio show motivates Samaritan at Dispatch Online

Photo by Rossko (Image Focus Australia)


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