Opinionista Mamphela Ramphele 29 July 2020

Fix the inequality: Creative interventions are urgently needed to fix our wounded society

South Africa is in the midst of an existential crisis that demands urgent systemic responses. The Covid-19 emergency provides us with a window of opportunity to shift from short-termism and paternalism by the state, towards a capable state with responsible citizens.

South Africa is at serious risk as a nation, with most of our children growing up without the love and support of both fathers and mothers.  According to official statistics, well over 60% of South African children live without fathers in their lives.

Many of our children are growing up without the unconditional parental love and support that is essential for enhancing the wellbeing and development of children. The majority of our children do not experience genuine expressions of warmth, physical touch and tenderness, good humour, respect and considerate support.  

The legacy of the systematic undermining of African family life at the altar of an exploitative, extractive, socio-economic system introduced by colonial conquerors continues to reverberate as trauma across multiple generations. 

The failure of post-apartheid governments to transform human settlements in urban areas so they provide dignified access to urban resources and basic needs continues the betrayal of the majority of citizens. The same applies to the corruption of the land reform and restitution programmes that deny rural people dignified livelihoods.

Psychologists and family counsellors have identified factors that make it difficult for parents to unconditionally love and support their children: among these are poor self-image, immaturity, unresolved trauma and fear of intimacy, and a lack of experience of being loved and protected as children. 

Overlaying substance abuse and domestic and gender-based violence on the circumstances of vulnerable children creates explosive situations that undermine their development, leaving them highly stressed and at risk of repeating these social pathologies in their own adult lives.

To add insult to injury, our Department of Social Development does not seem to have the capacity to support families and communities faced with large numbers of highly vulnerable children. The approach of social welfare in our society seems to start and end with social grants. There seems to be little appreciation of the need to provide psycho-social support for vulnerable people to enable them to be liberated from their poor self-image, and from doubts in their own capacities, to rise above their predicaments to become independent citizens able to contribute to the common good.

Our government’s response to the Covid-19 emergency has been commendable in its intent, but follow-through has fallen far short of what is possible. 

The fundamental assumptions guiding many public officials in government seem to derive from a paternalistic view that “our people” need to be treated as subjects – to be given the crumbs from the table – not as citizens to whom they are accountable. 

One wonders if many of these public officials may also be suffering from lack of maturity, empathy and a sense of accountability due to inter-generational trauma that so many in our society have suffered. 

The ANC as the governing party has also let down vulnerable people with its long track record of tolerance for unaccountability and impunity in public service.  

Creating an ecosystem for effective and efficient emergency responses is at the core of the AU plan. Strengthening health systems and recruiting competent professionals to fill essential human resources gaps, enhancing the quality of education and training systems, providing food security, and financing these shifts, are all on the table.  

One of the most outrageous examples is the behaviour of Thami ka Plaatjie, the adviser to Minister of Water and Sanitation, Lindiwe Sisulu, who was recorded saying to his fellow officials that: “I had wanted that we sit down and check how many we can bring and consolidate (water tankers) so we can all share the slice, because it is a lot.”  

Money intended to provide emergency water for communities with none to wash their hands to protect themselves and their loved ones against Covid-19 is seen as too much for poor people to benefit from. 

Never mind that water and sanitation are basic rights that should have long been taken care of.  The silence of minister Sisulu in the light of this outrage is deafening.

Our president, as chair of the African Union, has endorsed the AU Development Agency’s Plan of Action against Covid-19, which sets out short-term and post-Covid plans for the continent’s recovery from the pandemic. This AU action plan presents huge opportunities to tackle the legacy of structural problems that have undermined our sustainable development. It is also an opportunity for President Cyril Ramaphosa to root out embedded corrupt practices within the governing party.  

The question is whether there is the political will to seize this crisis as an opportunity for fundamental shifts towards inclusive wellbeing through promoting development approaches. 

Creating an ecosystem for effective and efficient emergency responses is at the core of the AU plan. Strengthening health systems and recruiting competent professionals to fill essential human resources gaps, enhancing the quality of education and training systems, providing food security, and financing these shifts, are all on the table.  

Closing the tap of public procurement, that has become the preserve of politically connected tenderpreneurs, would free billions of rands to provide guaranteed employment programmes to restore the dignity of work to young men and women; and all others who have recently lost jobs due to Covid-19 and the economic meltdown preceding it.  

Given the high levels of unemployment and the loss of livelihoods by many in the lower socio-economic strata of our highly unequal society, what stops us using part of the R500-billion emergency fund and the significant Solidarity Fund to recruit and upscale social workers to support families in distress and protect children from further harm? 

The high level of substance abuse in our society is driven by multi-generational traumas, which, in turn, drive gender-based, interpersonal and domestic violence. 

Banning alcohol may be an appropriate short-term response given the high cost for an already over-stretched health system and direct annual costs to the economy estimated at R38-billion per annum. But medium-term, multi-disciplinary interventions are essential to address our unresolved traumas from our ugly past, and the on-going traumas of living in a racist, sexist and highly unequal society.

Hand-wringing about our unhealthy relationship with alcohol and abuse of other substances is not an appropriate response.  

We have an existential crisis that demands urgent systemic responses to address the central pillar of any society – the family – that is under siege. 

Suffer the children who are trapped under lockdown in dysfunctional families with no chance of escape to schools,  playgrounds or visiting supportive relatives. Imagine if we were to call on all unemployed social workers – and there are many – to come forward to become part of multi-disciplinary teams as the nation’s agents to support the healing of families. This would create better ecosystems for our children to grow up in better supportive family settings.  

Imagine if the president were to commission Sisonke Gender Justice and other civil society organisations working to address toxic masculinity, to systematically collaborate with a multi-disciplinary team to help boys to grow into self-respecting confident young men. 

Unemployed young men who hang around our streets and villages should be a key focus of self-liberating healing conversations to prepare them for training programmes to become economically active citizens. Young women, too, need support to develop into self-confident citizens who stand their ground and do not allow their bodies to be abused. 

The dignity of work provides individual and social value that a social grant cannot. Millions of the Born Free generation are not yet truly free. How can we expect them to be responsible parents and citizens?

Closing the tap of public procurement, that has become the preserve of politically connected tenderpreneurs, would free billions of rands to provide guaranteed employment programmes to restore the dignity of work to young men and women; and all others who have recently lost jobs due to Covid-19 and the economic meltdown preceding it.  

Imagine what good could come from all adults willing to work being given the opportunity to be trained in any skill they have an aptitude for, and to be employed to build essential social and physical infrastructure in both urban and rural areas! 

Our existing public works programme needs to be radically transformed into a professionally run and monitored platform for the proposed guaranteed employment programme at the local, provincial and national level, as some countries are doing abroad.  

The dignity of work is essential to healing our multiply wounded society and to restore citizen responsibility for public assets and services for the common good. 

Prof Andrew Lawrence, director of the Florey Institute of Neuroscience & Mental Health at Cardiff University (and visiting scholar at Wits University) makes a compelling case for a shift from social welfare grants to guaranteed employment programmes. He argues that enlightened self-interest should inform this shift, beyond the president’s YES program, which even in the best scenario with 120,000 jobs created per year, would take 25 years to tackle our chronic unemployment problems. 

Inequality, like violent crime, correlates with unemployment. First, we have the fifth-highest homicide rate in the world, at a national cost of 19% of GDP, with violence containment costs estimated at R989-billion in 2016. 

Second, full employment would reduce inequality, which in turn would reduce crime. Third, and most important, full employment is economic justice and climate justice. 

The dignity of work provides individual and social value that a social grant cannot. Millions of the Born Free generation are not yet truly free. How can we expect them to be responsible parents and citizens?

The existential crisis our nation faces requires urgent creative interventions. The Covid-19 emergency provides us with a window of opportunity to shift from short-termism and paternalism by the state, towards a capable, enabling state with confident, responsible citizens. DM

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