from the editor
on 4 September 1998, Cuba’s president Fidel Castro received a roaring welcome in Parliament. Watching footage of his speech – which he described as a “love letter to a sweetheart thousands of miles away” – will leave even the fiercest Castro critic somewhat emotional.
In many ways, 1998 feels like a lifetime ago. Nelson Mandela was still president, and South Africa the darling of the world. Mosiuoa Lekota, now leader of Cope, was still a blue-blooded ANC man, serving as chairman of the National Council of Provinces. The much-respected Frene Ginwala served as the dignified speaker of a House that was probably never going to be ready for the likes of Baleka Mbete and the EFF.
Castro’s message that day focused in part on the miracle of SA’s peaceful transition to democratic rule, and the huge challenges we had to overcome to reduce the inequalities between our two economies – one rich and largely white; one poor and largely black. The challenge, he accurately predicted, would be to “carry forward social change in an orderly, gradual and peaceful way, so that [the considerable material and technical] wealth could contribute to the optimal benefit of the South African people”.
He highlighted a number of specific challenges we would have to address: illiteracy, unemployment, income inequality, life expectancy, land ownership – detailing how it was all skewed according to race. Nearly 20 years after his speech, it is demoralising to see just how little progress has been made. Unemployment has, for example, increased drastically among both black and white, even though it remains substantially lower among whites.
The number of black graduates has increased significantly, a fact that should be lauded, but much work remains to improve the quality of education at school level. An international study, released on 29 November, which tested grade 5 and 9 pupils, showed SA is one of the five lowest-performing countries in the world in maths and science. The others were Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Kuwait. Only a quarter of children at public, no-fee schools got maths scores above the minimum level of competency.
“There are many nations with similar social and economic problems that are the result of the conquests, the colonisation and an unbearable disparity in the distribution of wealth; but in no place other than here has the struggle for respect for human dignity kindled so much hope,” Castro told Parliamentarians that day.
With hope in short supply, it is perhaps time that we rekindle that struggle for respect for human dignity.