It is always unsettling to the middle classes to be confronted with images that show the naked truth about the indignity of poverty. Statistics and relayed news from a world far removed from us is the preferred manner of dealing with the poverty crisis. Having it displayed starkly on the front pages of newspapers is another matter altogether. It penetrates our comfort zones and makes us squirm. The image of a woman standing on a roadside bare bottomed with her pants around her knees is a shock to the system. But how else would we know that this woman, Nomathemba Hlongwane, a South African like us, is subjected to inexcusable indignity? It seems to take desperate measures to make those in power pay attention. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Had the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) not embarked on the strike in the platinum sector, which ground operations at three giant mining companies Lonmin, Impala Platinum and Anglo American Platinum to a halt, would South African society have paid any heed to the meagre wages and appalling living conditions of mineworkers? Even with the strike having stretched for close to six months, leaving workers and their families without an income and sinking deeper into poverty, life has continued as normal for the rest of the country, the only concern for the middle classes being the impact on the economy.
With AMCU and the platinum producers now having reached an agreement that will settle the protracted strike, most of the 70,000 workers will return to work and live in the harsh conditions that characterise most South African mines. The danger is that just like after the resolution of the wildcat strike at Lonmin in 2012, following the Marikana massacre, the bigger issues of living conditions of mining communities will slip off the national agenda. Until the next crisis.
South Africa is notorious for paying too little attention to people’s grievances until there is death or mayhem. The country is besieged with protest action, to a stage where it is the new normal to be out in the streets carrying crudely made placards and burning tyres. Although there are ward councillors throughout the country who are supposed to represent community needs, very often the protests are against these very people and the failure of government system to serve these communities.
South Africa has a long history of protest action. On Monday the country will commemorate the 38th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising, when 20,000 school children protested against Afrikaans being used as the medium for teaching. The protest action started at the Orlando West Junior School and spread to many other schools in Soweto. Had this gone off as a peaceful protest, the grave injustices in the country at the time would probably not have grabbed the world’s attention. As it happened, though, the police let loose their dogs on the protesters, who retaliated by stoning the dogs. The police then began to fire directly at the children.
There is no accurate figure of how many people died on 16 June 1976; figures range from 176 to 700. As a result of the massive loss of life, particularly that of school children, and the horror – which later became iconic – images that went around the world, the anti-Apartheid struggle received international attention. The United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 392 condemning the incident and the Apartheid government. The event caused a crisis in the economy; the Rand plummeted and the ANC in exile called for the strengthening of economic sanctions against South Africa.
It took the blood of young children being spilt for the liberation struggle to receive the boost it needed, both domestically and internationally. You would think that now, a government that rose out of a people-driven struggle would pay more attention to the plight of communities crying out for help.
Sadly, very often it does not. Over the past few years, however, it took some extraordinary action for people to be heard.
In 2008, the nation was stunned when xenophobic attacks spread through townships across the country. It was a frightening phenomenon which exposed the horror and violence that our countrymen and women are capable of. The underlying reason for the violence against foreigners was frustration with lack of housing and jobs, and resentment against those perceived to be taking these away from South Africans. It divulged the desperation and anger that deprivation and poverty causes.
Since then protests have become endemic. And because they happen so frequently, sometimes serious grievances and life and death situations get overlooked. In frustration people burn down and destroy public facilities, anything associated with the government not hearing them. The homes of councillors get targeted. It has also become common for protests to become deadly, particularly when police use force against civilians. So now, even human life is not enough to get heard.
A new phenomenon arose in the Western Cape last year: the poo protests. Township dwellers, led by members of the ANC, took to dumping human waste in public places to protest the poor sanitation in in poor areas around Cape Town. The action caused horror and revulsion in society. The ANC distanced itself from the action and condemned it as a “lack of any political or revolutionary consciousness or maturity”. One ANC veteran said that not even during the height of Apartheid brutality were such tactics undertaken. “It tells you a lot about the people we keep in our ranks. That’s the lowest you can go… It is only monkeys that can do that (throw their poo),” he said.
As disgusting as the poo protests were, would there have been any urgency from the government both in the Western Cape and nationally to deal with the sanitation crisis had they not happened?
In May last year, former Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale told Parliament that the national sanitation backlog was still 2.278 million households. While government has made tremendous progress in undoing the Apartheid legacy, the fact that so many millions of people are still subjected to such indignity is scandalous. This while there is growth extravagance and waste amongst the political and business elite.
This week the shame of this disparity was thrust in our faces. If there is anything worse than having to still use the bucket system, it is that the degrading system becomes dysfunctional. Residents in Diepkloof Zone Six in Soweto who use the bucket system have not had the buckets emptied for three months. They took to the streets, burning tyres and then, quite bizarrely, began baring their bottoms at passing motorists.
One woman in particular, Nomathemba Hlongwane, was captured by a photographer from The Star, Antoine de Ras, with her trousers and underwear around her knees and her buttocks on display while police officers watched her from a little distance away. The Star also ran a picture of the woman unconscious on the ground after she was overcome by teargas fumes.
Hlongwane was one of many women from the Diepkloof Hostel who had been protesting on Chris Hani Road from 1am on Wednesday. They wanted the proper sanitation, decent housing and basic services they had been promised. They, like so many other frustrated communities, resorted to desperate measures because they are otherwise not heard.
Anyone who saw the pictures in various newspapers would have been shocked at the crudeness on display. But instead of being repulsed by the loutish behaviour, think what anger and frustration it must take to display one’s private parts in public. The underlying message can be read as, “If we have to suffer such indignity, so should you”.
For those horrified and sickened by the images, what would you do if you had to use a toilet overflowing with excrement for three months? Those residents obviously exhausted all other means to appeal for assistance and had no other means of getting attention.
They now have it.
Gauteng’s Housing MEC Jacob Mamabolo has now stepped in to ensure that the contractors are paid so that the buckets get emptied. Why does it have to take extraordinary action for government to do the job they are elected to do? If it is not disgraceful enough that there are still backlogs in essential services such as water and sanitation, people’s cries get ignored until they resort to desperate measures to get attention.
Human life and human dignity and fundamental rights uphold our democracy. We cannot keep turning away when fellow South Africans are forced to live in inhumane and undignified conditions.
From the mineworkers to Nomathemba Hlongwane, people are desperate to be heard. What next will they have to do to be heard? DM
Photo: Some of the 600 people evicted overnight protest around a fire after police and private security evicted them from a commercial property in Johannesburg, South Africa, 05 June 2014. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK