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The SA Constitution at 25: What will become of a child...

Maverick Citizen

SA CONSTITUTION @25

Reflection: A child called Azania

(Photo: Gallo Images / City Press / Khaya Ngwenya)

Friday, 10 December 2021, marks 25 years of our country’s Constitution. Maverick Citizen has been publishing articles throughout the week commemorating the occasion with various reflections from ordinary South Africans and civil society. The articles will culminate in a special newsletter that will go out on 10 December.

One evening this week, I went for a walk in my local park in Johannesburg’s western suburbs. My main purpose was to inform the community of homeless people who live in the park about a pop-up Covid-19 vaccination site that would be offering health checks and vaccinations at a church in the area the next day.

After healthy November rains, the park is overgrown again. Winter brown has given way to lush green. The burned stubble of natural highveld grasses is replaced with profusion. 

As a result, unlike a few months ago, the shelters of the people who live here are not easily seen from the paths that cut through the Conservancy.

These shelters remind me of “dens” my friends and I would construct as a child in the garden of my school boarding house. “Shacks” is too grand a word. Homes cobbled together from detritus and jetsam. Thick plastic sheeting to keep out the rain. Slung low, not high enough to stand up in. 

At dusk proud men sit outside them fiddling with the day’s takings of recyclable material, watching the clouds for rain. Small fires smoulder. 

There’s a strange out of place tranquility. 

One couple has a litter of cavorting kittens. Birds are in the air and dive through the reeds; they don’t discriminate or judge the people below them as they go about their business.

One shelter is built like a kraal. One of the homeless people enviously called it “Nkandla”. Carefully swept and ordered. A home. The space partitioned. A few books, a “sitting room” in the open air. Dignified. But the two men inside tell me they are hungry and plead for food and clothes.

A young woman carries water “home” from the one tap in the park.

My guide is one of the homeless people who live here. I want to see everyone today, so he takes me to hidden places in the park I have not visited before. We push our way through thick reeds, crossing a spruit that is swollen with rain and rubbish.

After ten minutes we come to a shelter built up against the trunk of a weeping willow. V** is not yet home, but his girlfriend who also lives there is. As we talk, a child crawls out of the dark entrance. She’s beautiful and wears a necklace with a copper heart on it. Big curious intelligent eyes look up at me. 

Her name is Azania.

It seems the most natural thing in the world, a mother and her daughter. But it’s not natural. An infant living in the overhang of a tree, in a damp and dark shelter, furnished with a throwaway mattress and little else, surrounded by reeds and mud, a dangerous spruit metres away.

We chat for a few minutes and I humour the child. After I have left I ask myself what should be my duty to Azania? A small child does not belong in a park. Should I contact non-existent social services knowing they have little patience for homeless people? Would she anyway be any safer removed from her mother’s love? 

Last weekend, I visited a children’s home in Johannesburg and was told about several children who had recently been placed there by the Children’s Court simply because their parents could no longer afford to feed them. 

Azania’s cruel calculus seems to be physical safety or parental love? She seemed content, chortling, fussing, inquisitive and blissfully innocent of the incongruity of her surroundings. 

And it is a very beautiful and peaceful park. 

This is South Africa, 25 years after it ushered in a pioneering Constitution that promises children they have an immediately realisable right to shelter and social services; that promises “everyone access to adequate housing”; 21 years since Irene Grootboom took this right to the Constitutional Court and made groundbreaking jurisprudence for lawyers to chomp on, but not a lot for children like Azania. 

On the edge of the park, some of the houses are worth many millions of rands. They have the best views in Johannesburg. They sit cheek by jowl with homelessness, making the inequality that South Africa has become synonymous with. Nelson Mandela’s nightmare.

I wonder what will become of Azania? How long will she live and, if she does grow up, what will be her view of the world? What future awaits her?

As I walk away from the park, I am angry. I don’t know the ultrarich, but I’m getting to know the ultrapoor and their lives. I rage internally and think about how inequality is not a victimless crime. At this moment, I seethe because inequality is a political choice and the homeless are among its victims.

This week the World Inequality Report was launched. The strength of the report is the fact that it is based on reams and reams of data. It’s brimming with numbers and graphs. Its weakness is that statistics are numbing and as easily ignored as the other inconvenient truths overlooked by governments.

Azania, on the other hand, too young yet to talk, nevertheless tells the whole story. DM/MC

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