South Africa

Maverick Life, South Africa

Op-Ed: The future can be better for all

Op-Ed: The future can be better for all

For over a century women and men with dreams of other peoples’ equality and dignity in their hearts were prepared to sacrifice their own life possibilities in the belief that a better society was possible. In the end, their dreams were unstoppable and on 27 April 1994 they took 35 million expectant people over the finishing line to freedom. Tragically, however, the baton has been dropped and besmirched by those to whom they handed it. And yet, the future can still be made better for all South Africans. By MARK HEYWOOD.

A long, long time ago King Lear roamed the moorland in a dizzied state of madness, braving a heavy storm, defeated by his daughters and their armies. Perhaps shaken by the lightning, he suddenly found a common humanity with the poor of his former realm.

In words that have rung through the ages he cried out:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?

Then, in agony at realisation of the inequality and indignity he has been complicit in, Lear lamented:

Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!

Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, was published in 1606. At that time the world’s population was estimated to number about 550 million people. Shakespearean England was still full of kings, queens, lords and serfs. It was a time before the industrial revolution, before colonialism, before neo-colonialism, before neo-liberalism, before neo. It was before electricity, the steam engine, the car, the airplane, the Internet and e-mail.

A barren world – relatively.

Fast forward the tape by 400 years. Sadly, the heart of the human condition that a repentant King Lear cried out against remains unchanged. In the words Thomas Piketty uses to introduce his book, “The distribution of wealth is one of today’s most widely discussed and controversial issues.”

But today, instead of infecting a few million people a profound, painful, undignified, humanity-diminishing inequality cloaks several billion ‘poor naked wretches’ across our planet.

Inequality is an awful indictment of the selfishness of centuries of rulers. It is testimony that, while we have built glorious civilisations, the elites have been unwilling to share wealth mainly accumulated from the labour of the wretched.

South Africa 2015 has become a microcosm and exemplar of this inequality. Here ‘unfed sides’ and ‘looped and windowed raggedness’ face us on every street corner.

Poverty, inequality and state failure to meet basic needs is smog that envelops three quarters of our people, blighting their lives – and ours. Two events in the last few weeks made me realise how far we have sunk.

Two tales of the price of inequality

On 25 and 26 March the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) held public hearings on the state of emergency medical services in the Eastern Cape.

We may all have a medical emergency sometime. And when if it happens ambulances, trained emergency personnel and basic equipment such as oxygen are essential. They are part of the constitutional right of “everyone to have access to health care services”, a right that also states, “no one may be refused emergency medical treatment”.

This is a significant legal obligation on the state and should be a great reassurance to a free people. But what happens if there are no emergency medical services to provide the treatment to which people are constitutionally entitled?

This is the case across large swathes of the Eastern Cape (and many other parts of our realm); the resulting complaint to the SAHRC was the reason for holding the hearings.

Thus it was that in a dimmed cavernous hall in East London over 200 people gathered to tell their sad tales. There was always a danger that hearings like these become another pro forma talk-about-suffering fest. But this was different because rather than their intermediaries the real people were here.

I am grateful to hear the government provides these things called ambulances. We have never seen one,” said one woman.

Another: “For seven years, my child was sick. Every month, I had to take the child to hospital and had to hire a car. The clinics we have are beyond rivers and very far away. I struggled forever always having to pay R800. When (we) arrived at hospital, the nurses would ask: ‘Don’t you have money from the government to attend to this person? Why did you come late? Why didn’t you come early?’ You will just break down and cry when they say such things. My child, who was seven years old, died last year.”

Sometimes the nurse will use her own car (to take a patient to hospital) because the nurse cannot endure to see someone in pain. We used to think that the phone was never answered because we are uneducated and live in villages but when even the sister cannot get an answer…’ said another.”

With words like these, after a few hours, the hearing assumed something of the cathartic feel of the truth and reconciliation commission. Victim after victim spoke out of the horrors they had experienced. Unfortunately nobody from the responsible government departments seemed willing to make a full disclosure to the victims about why their precious – hard won – rights to life, dignity, health care services meant so little.


Invisible MECs of the Eastern Cape Health Department, Treasury and Public Works listen sympathetically to community members.

After the conclusion of day two, I realised something obvious. South Africa is not a failed state. Neither is it a society deprived of resources to such an extent that it cannot function and cannot provide essential services. South Africa can provide quality health services that are as good as anywhere in the world.

It simply doesn’t (and won’t) do so for most of our people, that is the poor and those who can’t pay.

Let the poor die.

A day later, I was in Bloemfontein for the criminal trial of 117 community health workers charged with ‘attending an illegal gathering’ way back in July 2014 – that is, an all night prayer vigil outside the office of the provincial health department to try and get their jobs back.

The night before all 117 slept in a school hall and, in another vigil that went on until early hours of the morning, the ragged and tired faces of mostly women health workers told stories of how they have survived since they and 3,000 others lost their jobs to an impersonal Free State health department memorandum in June 2014.

If you added up these workers years of service, you would find that they have thousands of years work experience. At the height of the Aids and TB epidemics they provided health services in a province that is desperately short of health care. But they have been cast out because of a budget constrained by… corruption.

When it comes to budget cuts women from far-flung rural towns and villages are the softest cut and easiest saving. Some have been re-employed. But most remain out of work because they are not fully literate or because they are older and expendable.

On the day of the trial itself despite being at the court by 8.30am, as instructed by the law, the group were left to bake in the streets until an unconcerned senior prosecutor had dealt with his other business.

Hours later all 117 were jammed into a court smaller than an RDP house, only to be told to come back again in July for a criminal trial of last at least four days. That will be their fifth self-funded trip to the courts. Does the NPA not have better things to do?

trial 117

Photo: Community health workers on trial, packed into court in a way that Magistrate Barry described as “undignified and humane, like sardines.”

Experiences like those described above are being repeated daily across the country. With the squeeze on quality journalism they are mostly untold. Felt only by those who feel them.

End of the heroic tradition

These stories make it abundantly clear that in South Africa we live on the tail end of a heroic tradition.

For over a century women and men with dreams of other peoples’ equality and dignity in their hearts were prepared to sacrifice their own life possibilities (love, living, literature, children, mountains…) in the belief that a better society was possible.

In the end, their dreams were unstoppable and on 27 April 1994 they took 35 million expectant people over the finishing line to freedom.

Tragically, however, the baton has been dropped and besmirched by those they handed it to. Many – if not most – have become obsessively preoccupied with their own lives and power. “I did not struggle to be poor” is the unspoken mantra of the new political elite. But neither did the left-behind poor.

So what is to be done?

In recent months, particularly in its antics and anemic explanations around the State of the Nation speech, we have seen how easily the African National Congress leadership now confuses its electoral authority, which remains secure, with its moral authority, which it has entirely lost.

Moral authority was what Nelson Mandela had, what Chris Hani had, what Ruth First had. Moral authority allowed Mandela to stop the outbreak of civil war with nothing but words after the murder of Hani.

Moral authority is what was missing at Marikana, Malumulele and a thousand other sites of wanton violence. Its absence can’t stop murderous xenophobia.

In the moral vacuum government leaders still talk patronisingly of “our people”. But a situation where “our people” vote for the best of all evils, on a slender hope that a portion of the China-Gupta-Motsepe-who-knows-who-funded promises might be true, or that they might benefit from the trickle down of conspicuous corruption is a dangerous situation. It makes for a volatile, violent, drunken and increasingly desperate society.

A United Front against inequality and for social justice

We live in a sea of troubles. So, how do we end them?

Inequalities and injustice lie behind the ferment in our politics. Up to now they have fuelled endless chatter and the equally endless inaction. However, the expulsion of Zwelinzima Vavi and the looming split in Cosatu marks the end of the Alliance’s ability to police a post-Apartheid political consensus.

In the last two years there have been several mainly well-intentioned but thwarted attempts to create new forces for change, including the Economic Freedom Fighters. But the plans now afoot to launch a United Front (UF) seem to suggest a space may open up for a new politics. Amongst the many, many people who are disaffected – and maybe even frightened – by the ANC’s decline are many people watching closely, fingers crossed, to see what emerges from this radical splinter. It espouses equality and dignity – but does it really mean to chase change?

For many sympathetic observers the big question is what politics – or more importantly what vision and programme of action – will the UF adopt?

Some argue that the UF is the prelude to a socialist workers’ party. My fear is that attempting to achieve social justice through the launch of a workers’ party will fail – and it will delay change. There will be sound, fury – lots of self-satisfying radical socialist rhetoric that allows a cleaning of souls – but little action that brings change and betterment.

What we really need to do now is to build on what we have, citizens’ power to hold every level of government, every government department and the private sector accountable. We need to educate, empower and organise people around the rights they won in 1994 to demand that the government they elected in 2014 deliver the rights entrenched in the Constitution in 1996.

At this stage the United Front is still embryonic and its path unclear. But if it advanced a radical constitutionalism it could have the potential to unify millions. There is no need to hark back to the Freedom Charter. Our supreme law is a radical one. It gives the people great power. It mandates a government that is democratic, based on human rights, equality and the achievement of social justice.

Social justice, words that are indelibly inked into the Preamble of the Constitution = substantive equality.

If the United Front is to capture the popular imagination and inspire action it needs to plot a path to reverse inequality. It is vital that it transcends old ideology. Unregulated capitalism – the Pandora’s box that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher opened to benefit the one per cent and infect the rest with a plague – are certainly responsible for a great many evils. But it does not follow that tomorrow’s struggle should be for an impossible socialism.

We have power – if we use it. Campaigns by relatively small numbers of people, such as the struggle for ARV medicines led by the Treatment Action Campaign which has saved over two million lives, have shown that inequality can be narrowed, the abuse of private power can be defeated – and it can be done within the framework of the existing state and economy.

Call me a “reformist” if you will but politicians can be forced to do what the people demand. We may not get socialism this way, but we can create quality jobs, quality schools, quality health systems, an economy that starts to grow again and accountable government.

Therefore, those who truly believe in equality and dignity – be they Christian, Muslim, socialist, atheist, intellectual, environmental, musical – would do well to pick up and try to win mass support for the struggles that make the most sense to the most people and represent immediate needs: for decent basic education, quality health services and sufficient food.

Our aim should be for a broad non-racial front that unites the unemployed, workers, women, the middle classes and even tries to win over the more far-sighted parts of business. Were that to be our vision a South Africa that provides emergency medical services to the poor, employs community health workers and provides quality schooling to poor children may become possible sooner than we think. For, as good King Lear said:

Allow not nature more than nature needs
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady.
If only to go warm were gorgeous
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wears’t
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need.

Are you up to it comrades? DM

Main photo: Cyclists competes during the 111 kilometer stage four of the Absa Cape Epic mountain bike team stage race in Worcester, South Africa, 19 March 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA


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