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After Covid-19: Reflections of a freedom fighter

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Ashley Forbes became active in student organisations while at high school, and was active in the establishment of the United Democratic Front in 1983. He later joined uMkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC. He went into exile in 1986 and completed his military training in Angola. After his release from Robben Island in 1991 he completed a three-year Business Management diploma in Singapore. He assisted with the establishment of the Robben Island Museum and returned to the island in an act of unintended irony to take up the position of Estates and Services Manager.

How quickly our present political leaders and industry captains have forgotten our past. Do they not remember how unconstrained economic greed and minority privilege propelled the apartheid system? That our people’s lands were violently taken? That property was dispossessed with vicious legislation and dwellings demolished with bulldozers?

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s most recent intervention, though welcome, is not proportionate to the gravity of our situation. In 1994 our people trusted their leaders to restore land and assets to the dispossessed, and provide education, housing and dignified work for all. I remember the time, not that long ago, when we saw no other way forward and contemplated a violent transfer of power. But we were constrained and persuaded to achieve our freedom through peaceful means. I recall the day we stood in long lines in the hot sun to cast our votes, euphoric and so full of hope, to elect new leaders and usher in our new democracy.

Twenty-six years later what has our new democracy brought us? A 2019 World Bank report finds that the top 1% of South Africans own 70.9% of the nation’s wealth. The bottom 60% collectively control only 7% of the country’s assets. According to the same report, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world in terms of wealth and income. In 2015, 55.5% of South Africans (or more than 30 million people) were surviving on less than $5 a day. In spite of these obscene statistics, those in power continue to increase their personal fortunes while the majority of the poor seem destined to forevermore dwell in their slum patches on the margins of the economy, continuing to slip further and further into abject poverty.

How quickly our present political leaders and industry captains have forgotten our past. Do they not remember how unconstrained economic greed and minority privilege propelled the apartheid system? That our people’s lands were violently taken? That property was dispossessed with vicious legislation and dwellings demolished with bulldozers? That black communities were driven into little barren pockets of land, denied access to rounded quality education and economic opportunities on a vast national scale? That the will to resist was crushed by an elaborate internal security apparatus and the most advanced and predatory military machine in Africa?

How can they forget that the colour of one’s skin was used by those in power to oppress and exploit so that they could take ownership of the resources beneath the soil, prime agricultural lands and beachfront properties with million-dollar views? Do they not recall that black people laboured under shameful working conditions and earned starvation wages on farms, factories and mines?

How shameful it was then. How shameful it is today, with the additional disgrace that the boot of exploitation on our necks is now also worn by people who are black.

I refuse to accept that we fought so hard, some among us paying with our very lives, to overthrow apartheid, only to keep in place and further entrench the same grindingly cruel and enduring economic injustices of our past. We have come to understand that the ruling elite will fight with every fibre in their dark souls to hold on to their stake. They have done well to co-opt many leaders of the liberation movement. They have drawn them into their web and now have an energetic army of respected black trade unionists and freedom-fighting stalwarts who too have given in to avarice and given up their commitment to a free and prosperous South Africa for all. The iniquity crept up on us slowly, but today it is blatantly clear that a culture of unconstrained profiteering has seeped into almost every sphere of state and the body politic.

Our late ANC NEC member, MK commander and comrade Chris Hani, must be turning in his grave. I remember the time when orders were issued for his arrest and dungeons dug for him in Livingstone. I recall when the ANC leadership expelled him from the party because he dared expose the emergence of a growing self-interested business elite amongst the ANC in exile. There were those who cast Hani as a traitor, but they were in the minority. Thankfully, the majority thought otherwise: at the ANC Morogoro Conference in 1969, Comrade Hani was reinstated as an ANC member and became a young rising star in its highest decision-making body, the NEC. He guided us in the dark and lifted our spirits by rising as an ethical leader through the ranks.

The South African economy was in decline before Covid-19 hit, but the pandemic exposes our deepest fault lines for all to see. The elite comfortably weather the storm, while the majority of the people who die from Covid-19 are poor, starving and homeless, and because of stay-at-home requirements, women and children are vulnerable to unspeakable levels of violence.

I remember the values that Comrade Hani espoused. I remember what he warned against. I remember what he aspired to do for all our people.

He spoke of decent shelter for those who are homeless, safe drinking water for those who have none, decent healthcare for all, a life of dignity for the old, overcoming the huge divide between urban and rural, a decent education for all our people and decent jobs for a living wage. He presciently said: “What I fear is that the liberators emerge as elitists… who drive around in Mercedes-Benzes and use the resources of this country… to live in palaces and to gather riches.” (Chris Hani 29 October 1992).

I am not the first within the ANC family to invoke the memory and exemplary life of Comrade Hani to remind our present leaders of our history, of the Hani Memorandum and the Morogoro Conference of 1969. But I specifically cite his memory because Oliver Tambo, bless his soul, had the wisdom and the sheer courage to stare down Hani’s detractors and intervene in the ANC to hold them accountable. It was a defining moment in the history of the ANC. President Cyril Ramaphosa today faces the same opportunity, brought about unexpectedly by Covid-19, to stare down those in the ANC who continue along the same criminal lines as Hani’s detractors, to hold the ANC accountable, and define a new path that is true to the liberation movement’s foundational values. For Ramapahosa and the remaining true progressives in the ANC, it will take a monumental lift to forge the new direction; it will not arrive by consensus, it clearly is a fight and a battle worth taking on.

The South African economy was in decline before Covid-19 hit, but the pandemic exposes our deepest fault lines for all to see. The elite comfortably weather the storm, while the majority of the people who die from Covid-19 are poor, starving and homeless, and because of stay-at-home requirements, women and children are vulnerable to unspeakable levels of violence. We had 26 years to build a world-class education system that would empower and position our generations of youth as active participants in the knowledge economy. We only have a private quality education system for the elite. The elite has access to private quality healthcare, while the poor are served by an under-resourced and stretched public healthcare service. Our rail, bus and taxi transport systems strain to serve the needs of the poor. Covid-19 has a devastating impact on the elderly and on those with underlying medical conditions, especially so in poor communities. The disparities between rich and poor in South Africa mean that Covid-19 has the most devastating impact on poor communities.

Covid-19 exposed our fault lines, but also revealed our greatest strength. Ordinary people, black and white, came together across our country, united in their common purpose, to help each other fight this pandemic. While local authorities issued eviction notices to the poor and the destitute, communities mobilised to get food to the starving and provide shelter to the homeless. During lockdown when supply networks failed, young people devised innovative ways to deliver food parcels and medicines to the elderly and the sick. Our conscientious and devoted health workers risked their lives on the frontline of care to save and heal others, while money intended for personal protective gear was stolen and redirected by thieving tenderpreneurs masquerading as businessmen and women. Ordinary people flattened the curve not because of those in power but in spite of them.

So, what is to be done?

There is much to attend to, but the priorities must surely be to:

  • Do what we must to save lives and get the economy started;
  • Accelerate the prosecution of those who steal, loot and plunder and strengthen the criminal justice system for a zero-tolerance approach to corruption;
  • Fix our hospitals and clinics and specially train a new generation of health workers for routine and surge care;
  • Commit to innovative ways to redistribute wealth in our country;
  • Open up opportunities for all South Africans to participate in and benefit from an economy that is truly broad-based and inclusive;
  • Put our children’s education first – and start earlier with free pre-school opportunities;
  • Revisit the proposal to institute a Basic Income Grant;
  • Commit to innovative ways of providing housing for those without;
  • Mainstream environment and climate action across all government departments and steer South Africa towards a resilient, low carbon future;
  • Reform the electoral system to make public representatives far more accountable for their conduct measured against the duties defined by the Constitution; and
  • Reform private and public institutions to build real democracy in our communities, schools, government and places of work.

I am not sure that the current leadership is able to change course. They may have run out of opportunities and time. What I do know with great certainty is that greed and the vulgar pursuit of profit is no match for the people’s commitment and resolve to secure a better life for themselves and for others. They proved this in their struggle against apartheid, and in the struggle against Covid-19. They will continue to do so in the days ahead. Of this I am certain. DM

Ashley Forbes would like to acknowledge Delecia Forbes for her editorial assistance.

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