South Africans are often reminded (and often by the chattering class) that they have the necessary tools in order to access justice, realise their rights and that there is no need for unnecessary confrontation against the status quo. Hollow words when millions of South Africans remain trapped in abject poverty in a system that is structurally warped to such a degree that issues of inequality, poverty and unemployment remain unchallenged. It is not surprising in this environment that we have seen a mobilisation that is both frustrated, angry and disillusioned.
It should not surprise us to see events unfold just this past week in Mitchells Plain and Siqalo (communities far removed from the efficiency and veneer of Cape Town’s CBD and leafy suburbs) or in North West demonstrating the growing frustration with the status quo.
We can no longer simply reduce these stories to service delivery protests with smouldering rubble and both live footage and stills of the disgruntled residents. South Africans need to understand, appreciate and confront that growing sense of restlessness, frustration and hopelessness if we are ever going to truly confront our challenges.
The challenge of Mitchells Plain is that it sits more than 30km away from Cape Town’s CBD, built in the 1970s by the apartheid regime as a necessitated outcome of the Group Areas’ Act and the forced removals that transformed the spatial landscape of our cities. A landscape that remains unchanged to a large extent where residents of Mitchells Plain still spend a large proportion of their disposal income on transportation needs and are burdened by educational challenges that are replicated and mimicked across black communities in South Africa.
Similar, Siqalo, established more than six years ago on a parcel of land (that receives some services from the City of Cape Town), struggles with many similar challenges, except their circumstances are exacerbated by the inability of government (national, provincial and local) to address the needs of that community. A similar blow has been dealt to the residents of Marikana, Philippi East, where government officials spend more time wringing their hands and enunciating all the reasons why solving the problem does not sit within their respective legislative mandate.
However, the struggle of poverty and inequality does not appear to be a struggle of a collective as communities across our country are often used as political fodder in order to score points and achieve outcomes in elections. It should not be surprising that there was a noticeable element of racial rhetoric in the protests that took place in Mitchells Plain and Siqalo. South Africans will need to dig deep to reclaim the unity that is required to confront the challenges of poverty, inequality and poverty – the social compact that is often spoken of by our politicians needs to be shaped in our communities across lines of gender, race and class if we are truly going to confront our challenges.
In the aftermath of events in North West, Mitchells Plain and Siqalo, we all collectively need to confront the underlying reasons that South Africans are moved to the streets in such a vociferous manner. We should not simply accept this as the new normal but rather should begin to use the tools at our disposal but also provide the space for South Africans to access and realise their rights.
We should not lose sight that often justice remains deferred. The Marikana massacre, the death of Lumka Mketwa (she was just five years old) or Michael Komape (also just five years old) should be stark reminders to all South Africans that we are often unable to act against the structural realities of our society whether it is rooted in a brutal reaction by the state, patriarchy, inequality, poverty or the inability of our government to deliver. Yet, in spite of the deaths of young Lumka and Michael, and according to the 2016 statistics of the Department of Basic Education, 9, 000 schools across South Africa have only pit latrines for toilets.
Retired Deputy Chief Justice Moseneke was able to stand up for the victims and survivors of the Life Esidimeni tragedy where 144 psychiatric patients died after being moved from Life Esidimeni to various unlicensed NGOs. The outcome from the Life Esidimeni arbitration was that relief was granted as compensation for the government’s breach of the Constitution.
However, the Limpopo High Court in Polokwane in April dismissed the claim by the family of Michael Komape for general and constitutional damages. The survivors of the Marikana massacre continue to wait and struggle. Those trapped in poverty remain burdened by a South Africa that remains unable to confront the structural challenges required to really confront the scourges of unemployment, inequality and poverty.
In the aftermath of tragedies of Marikana, Life Esidimeni or the deaths of young children such as Lumka and Michael, it is easy for us to lose faith. However, these moments in our history should act as important reminders that we must challenge and confront the status quo.
We cannot be complacent. We should remember the story of Irene Grootboom, who spearheaded a Constitutional Court case in 2000 for proper housing for the poor, on behalf of 510 children and 290 adults living in deplorable conditions in Wallacedene. The outcome of that landmark judgment was that the state was obliged to devise and implement “a comprehensive and co-ordinated programme to realise the right of access to adequate housing”.
Eight years after that landmark decision, Irene died in her shack in Wallacedene. Irene’s death should shame all of us, especially those who claim to stand for the rights of the poor and disenfranchised. The struggle that Irene epitomised and the struggle for justice remain alive but it requires all South Africans to fight for the status quo to change. DM