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All have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable

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Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar was born in Cape Town and raised by his determined mother, grandparents, aunt and the rest of his maternal family. He is an admitted attorney (formerly of the corporate hue), with recent exposure in the public sector, and is currently working on transport and infrastructure projects. He is a Mandela Washington Fellow, a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, and a WEF Global Shaper. He had a brief stint in the contemporary party politic environment working for Mamphela Ramphele as Agang CEO and chief-of-staff; he found the experience a deeply educational one.

Politicians, elected public officials and civil servants are all hellbent on protecting their position and legacy instead of standing up for what is right.

How we respond to Covid-19 is an opportunity for South Africa to redefine its nationhood (and the world at large in fact). An opportunity to define how we treat the vulnerable, the poor, the forgotten, the silent, the victims, the womxn, the children, and those shunted and disregarded by the system. 

However, it is an opportunity that will also be pounced on by the extremist, the abusers, the racist and those that wish to protect their hegemony. This is something that all of us have a responsibility to confront and guard against. We must fight against those that wish to peddle their anti-poor agenda. 

In this global pandemic, and the ensuing economic crisis, we must confront our own demons and those within our society. In these times, the way we treat the poor, the homeless, the vulnerable, the abused is a reflection on our democracy, on who we are and on our collective soul as a nation.

South Africa is a fragile state where poverty, injustice and inequality threaten our constitutional democracy. A threat that affects millions of South Africans and future generations. It is a threat that steals the future of young children, perpetuates violence and abuse at a staggering scale, and keeps millions of South Africans poor, vulnerable, dejected and rejected. The responsibility for confronting this would ordinarily rest with our elected public officials, but the sad truth is that they are often at the root of the crisis. It is not surprising that during this lockdown, the most vulnerable in our society will be exposed even more to the dangers of our society and made poorer by this pandemic.

Inequality, poverty and unemployment in our society became entrenched under the lost decade of Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma and the governing African National Congress. Our freedom and democracy were not simply stolen, but are eroded each time a person goes hungry, each time a young child is brutally maimed, killed or raped, each time a womxn fears for her safe passage, each time a person struggles to access decent housing, ablution facilities or government services. 

Where are those brave men and womxn that were willing to resist the charms and trappings of power? Instead, our collective future was sacrificed on the altar of trough-politics, self-interest and greed. Politicians, elected public officials and civil servants are all hellbent on protecting their position and legacy instead of standing up for what is right.

This is not very different from what continues to happen to those in our society that must fend for themselves without any real protection or care from the developmental state. 

Cape Town, the city of my birth, and its government under the Democratic Alliance, have this week once again reflected how they choose to treat those most vulnerable and forgotten in our society – the homeless. It is not an accidental event or circumstance that has created the issue of homelessness in our society, but rather the violent manner in which our society is constructed to create violent conditions and consequences of poverty.

The City of Cape Town has for a very long time practised the artform of removing poverty from the inner city by constructing and designing business improvement districts, employing private security and displacing homeless persons to the outskirts of the city. This is the undisclosed policy to treat those most vulnerable in our society. The design of places like “Blikkiesdorp” is not accidental but rather the intentional conduct to displace poverty and homelessness to the outskirts so that it can be managed effectively by brute force and hidden from the more popular avenues of Cape Town.

Blikkiesdorp was constructed in 2007 at the instigation of Helen Zille, the then-mayor of Cape Town, as a temporary relocation area (ludicrous that it continues to expand 13 years later!) but has been extended and bolstered under the mayoral leadership of Grant Haskin, Dan Plato, Patricia de Lille, Ian Neilson and again in Plato’s current term. Thousands of residents are shunted away to live in tin shacks – obscured from sight, hidden from the care and worry of the trough-eating politicians and sent to be forgotten, murdered and ignored.

It is not surprising that one consequence of the response to Covid-19 would be shifting of responsibility and the usual name-calling (albeit some of that is justified), but the more concerning element is how those most vulnerable – the homeless – have been displaced and relocated to Strandfontein Sports Grounds. Following “some conflict on site”, Groundup has reported that there “are many people in the camp with chronic illnesses, such as HIV and TB, and there is no identifiable way that people with these conditions can get access to treatment”.

This is not a question of sensationalism as suggested to the media by JP Smith, the current City Mayco member for safety and security (someone who had had his own conflict with former mayor de Lille), but rather a fundamental question about how our governments are responding to the impact of the national lockdown, as determined by President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, and particularly how our governments elect to treat those that are most vulnerable in our society.

The conduct of all, particularly our elected officials, must come under scrutiny, and in the absence of accountability being demanded by our own governments, we have a duty to call such behaviour out. It is the very reason why elected officials such as Stella Tembisa Ndabeni-Abrahams must be called out for her irresponsible conduct, and why the decisions and exercise of public power (in our name) must be questioned and interrogated. In the days and weeks to come, South Africans will need to be served by our elected officials and our government, and we are right to demand more from them.

South Africa in these uncertain and difficult times must model care and compassion for its people and commitment to the rule of the law. Our Parliament, and its elected officials, must navigate a new world of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and begin the important work of conducting the people’s business in service of the republic. 

As long as public power is exercised in our name, it must face scrutiny, questioning and must always remain answerable to the people and our Constitution.

Those recalcitrant and irresponsible in our government ranks, such as Ndabeni-Abrahams, must be held accountable and those in the City of Cape Town must be questioned and interrogated. The City’s conduct in Strandfontein, and elsewhere, must be considered by the City Council. The conduct by the police and our state agencies conducting government business elsewhere in the republic must be subject to oversight to consider whether such conduct is lawful but importantly whether it is humane and responsive to the needs of our people.

We have a real opportunity to reshape our democracy, but to do so we must make the right choices. 

We must make the simple choice of rejecting party politics, the politics of ego and self-interest and standing up for what is fair and right. We must make the choice to stand up for those who cannot speak, for those who cannot fight, for those who go hungry, for those who are forgotten and rejected by our system. This is the choice we must all make and demand from each other. 

We must not silently sit on the sidelines, powerless and voiceless, when those politicians and their civil servant actors conduct business in our name irresponsibly. This is what we should all be outraged by and especially in these difficult and terrible times – we must rage and battle against such cruelty. DM

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