Bridg­ing the gap be­tween rich and poor

A gen­uine com­mit­ment to shar­ing re­sources is the only sus­tain­able an­swer to South Africa’s mount­ing so­cial dis­tress, writes Lutz van Dijk

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES -

WHEN I first came to South Africa in May 1997 – hav­ing been de­nied en­try dur­ing apartheid – my ar­rival co-in­cided with Arch­bishop Des­mond Tutu’s open­ing of the first youth hear­ings of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion in Athlone.

As a staff mem­ber of the Anne Frank Foun­da­tion in Am­s­ter­dam, I re­mem­ber be­ing as fas­ci­nated, as many oth­ers were, by the ethic of the TRC in con­fronting South Africa’s re­cent and painful past. That early ex­pe­ri­ence prompted me to re­turn to con­duct fur­ther re­search – with UWC aca­demic Karin Chubb – about the com­mis­sion’s achieve­ments, and also its lim­its.

Four years later my part­ner and I moved to South Africa per­ma­nently to wit­ness the trans­for­ma­tion of so­ci­ety from front-row seats as vol­un­teers in a pi­lot project for chil­dren liv­ing with HIV/Aids in Masi­phumelele. It was here, on World Aids Day in 2002, that Arch­bishop Tutu, keep­ing his word, opened the first Hok­isa Chil­dren’s Home.

You could say, in 2013, that the re­flec­tions of a his­to­rian and com­mu­nity ac­tivist are the last thing that’s needed as South Africans pre­pare for their fourth na­tional elec­tions and cel­e­brate 20 years of democ­racy.

An econ­o­mist might ar­guably be bet­ter placed to pro­vide clues to deal­ing with the big­gest chal­lenge of all: how to cre­ate a more equal so­ci­ety in which the ex­tremes of poverty and wealth are over­come and the suf­fi­cient re­sources of this coun­try are shared for the ben­e­fit of all.

The trou­ble is, this vi­sion of a more equal and demo­cratic eco­nom­i­cally strong so­ci­ety seems of­ten ei­ther too ab­stract – like the sub­ject of an aca­demic re­port – or too re­mote, as in the ex­cel­lent Na­tional De­vel­op­ment Plan for 2030, im­ple­men­ta­tion of the first steps of which al­ready seems to lack ur­gency in gov­ern­ment cir­cles.

Shar­ing some of my ex­pe­ri­ences over the past decade as a vol­un­teer with a his­to­rian’s back­ground in the fields of health and hous­ing in one of the poor­est town­ships south of Cape Town might, how­ever, pro­vide some sur­pris­ingly en­cour­ag­ing in­sights.

This is es­pe­cially so in a cli­mate of grow­ing so­cial un­rest, whether gen­uine or po­lit­i­cally in­sti­gated. Marikana is with­out doubt the most hor­ri­fy­ing and des­per­ate sym­bol of such un­rest so far. While the Far­lam Com­mis­sion goes on and on, we all know in our hearts that none of the un­der­ly­ing is­sues has been re­solved. No his­to­rian can pre­dict the fu­ture. But some ob­vi­ous lessons from the past can be ac­knowl­edged – or ig­nored at so­ci­ety’s peril. It is by no ac­ci­dent that South Africa, de­spite the early ANC slo­gan, “A bet­ter life for all!” has be­come the world’s most un­equal so­ci­ety.

This ab­stract term does not ex­press the real pain of those mil­lions who are still hun­gry and ex­ploited – and nor does it ex­press the fear of the wealthy (and wealth is not a mat­ter of skin colour alone any­more) who fo­cus more at­ten­tion on the se­cu­rity of their prop­erty than on any­thing else. If even the pres­i­dent needs a R200 mil­lion se­cu­rity up­grade at his Nkandla es­tate while the ma­jor­ity of the youth face un­em­ploy­ment, it’s likely his­to­ri­ans in time to come will de­scribe this phase of South African his­tory as the most ob­scene since the ad­vent of democ­racy.

It is ob­scene in the sense of the in­dif­fer­ence to the hu­man dig­nity of oth­ers – the pos­i­tive coun­ter­part of which was once called ubuntu.

Too of­ten, the in­ad­e­quate re­sponse to this ob­scen­ity is char­ity, in­tended first and fore­most to guar­an­tee some peace of mind for those who give: to hand out food parcels and blan­kets af­ter dis­as­ters or to bring toys and clothes to poor chil­dren around Christ­mas. Don’t get me wrong: dis­as­ter relief is still needed, sadly again and again, when­ever dis­as­ters oc­cur. But what is re­ally needed – and what is pos­si­ble – is land and de­cent hous­ing in a scheme that lifts peo­ple out of poverty for­ever. If we pro­vide dis­as­ter relief, let us call it ex­actly this, but let us not feel bet­ter about it un­less we work at the same time on a mu­tual, re­spect­ful plan founded on shar­ing be­tween those with re­sources and those with­out them – not in ab­stract, not in a gen­eral sense or in some dis­tant fu­ture, but prac­ti­cally, to­day, in our im­me­di­ate neigh­bour­hood and geared to­wards those who are still re­garded as “the oth­ers”.

Only true shar­ing is car­ing, and noth­ing less than gen­uine shar­ing (with­out tak­ing away from any­body) is what is needed to­day. This is no soft ver­sion of forced re­dis­tri­bu­tion, but a wake-up call while wis­dom and hu­man­ity can still pre­vail and the spi­ralling risks of ex­ces­sive se­cu­rity and grow­ing vi­o­lence have not be­come over­whelm­ing.

Our mod­est town­ship com­mu­nity of­fers a pos­i­tive ex­am­ple of what is pos­si­ble. In Masi­phumelele, af­ter a ter­ri­ble fire in 2006 de­stroyed 400 shacks in one night, some res­i­dents re­fused the gov­ern­ment-is­sue “starter kits” – a few poles, a plas­tic sheet and nails. They did not toy­i­toyi for bet­ter hous­ing, but got to­gether to make plans for hous­ing 400 fam­i­lies on a piece of land hardly big­ger than two soc­cer fields. As this project was not ini­ti­ated by the lo­cal ANC branch, it was met in the be­gin­ning with the deep­est sus­pi­cion. Hous­ing of­fi­cials from the pro­vin­cial Depart­ment of Hu­man Set­tle­ments at the time told the af­fected res­i­dents there was no way to re­alise such plans as they would have to wait in line ac­cord­ing to the hous­ing wait­ing list. But the res­i­dents per­sisted. The first sup­port came from a re­tired ar­chi­tect from the neigh­bour­ing “white” sub­urb of Fish Hoek.

He con­ceived the idea for blocks of flats, a scheme em­braced by about 350 out of the 400 fam­i­lies. Since 2006 a few pro­vin­cial hous­ing min­is­ters have come and gone, but it was only once the block­ing of many good ini­tia­tives be­tween the prov­ince and city was over (once the DA ruled on both lev­els) that the long-ap­proved hous­ing sub­sidy was made avail­able and – to­gether with a 50-per­cent stake of R20 mil­lion from pri­vate in­ter­na­tional do­na­tions – con­struc­tion be­gan.

Later, a lo­cal ANC leader also joined the ben­e­fi­ciary-elected board of the project, called Amakhaya Ngoku (“homes now”). So far, 232 two- room flats with so­lar- heated wa­ter have been given to the fire vic­tims of 2006 – with a com­mu­nity hall. Flats for 120 fam­i­lies are still to be built, as well as a play­ground next to the hall.

Co-op­er­a­tion across the di­vi­sions of the past can work. Shar­ing means giv­ing sub­stan­tially, not crumbs from the ta­ble, and en­ables real change that ar­rests the per­pet­u­a­tion of in­equal­ity.

Hope needs vis­i­ble change, but where hope is fad­ing, pop­ulism is rife. Of course, there is no de­velop- ment with­out con­flict. In our hous­ing project we also had cor­rup­tion, never around fund­ing, but in re­gard to our own wait­ing list.

“When the gov­ern­ment is do­ing it, we can too,” some would say, or “to help fam­ily and friends is an African tra­di­tion which Euro­peans never un­der­stand”. Some in­tended ben­e­fi­cia­ries re­fused to move from the con­struc­tion site – “Madiba promised us houses, not flats” – and some joined a rental boy­cott as the own­er­ship (due to the gov­ern­ment sub­sidy con­di­tions) could only be achieved af­ter four years of pay­ing a mod­est rent of R400 a month (“I am poor and can earn more by rent­ing it out to for­eign­ers who pay R1 400 for the same flat”).

Each of th­ese state­ments is based on the kind of pop­ulism we will see more of in the weeks ahead of the elec­tion. Pop­ulism means se­lect­ing a piece of re­al­ity (which is true) and sim­pli­fy­ing it on emo­tional grounds to make your­self pop­u­lar at the ex­pense of the com­plete (and some­times com­plex) truth.

Malema’s EFF is get­ting much sup­port, es­pe­cially among young peo­ple, be­cause it ap­peals to their de­sire for vis­i­ble change.

At the very least, it brings an emo­tional up­beat in an ocean of prom­ises. In Masi­phumelele, I meet more and more young peo­ple who “like” Juju, be­cause he was also once poor. A ru­ral boy raised by his gogo – and look at him now.

Of course, Malema is not “left” or even “rad­i­cal”, de­spite his talk of na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of mines and banks, but a sex­ist and au­thor­i­tar­ian “com­man­der in chief ” who clearly does not think much of democ­racy and free­dom, but may well be “ready to kill” as he of­fered to do once for Zuma when they were still friends.

If you read eye­wit­ness ac­counts of the rise of Nazism in Ger­many in the early 1930s, you will find strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties in vo­cal sup­port, es­pe­cially among young peo­ple, for the new Führer.

There are other strik­ing his­tor­i­cal sim­i­lar­i­ties: ex­treme poverty and hunger, over­crowded liv­ing con­di­tions, high rates of un­em­ploy­ment and a young demo­cratic gov­ern­ment that was re­garded by many as weak, if not cor­rupt.

How does this re­late to Masi­phumelele? Fif­teen years ago about 15 000 peo­ple lived in the area that to­day houses 40 000. The com­mu­nity is over­crowded. There is not one square me­tre of un­oc­cu­pied land, and about 10 000 res­i­dents have squeezed them­selves into a na­ture re­serve wet­lands which is flooded ev­ery win­ter. This com­mu­nity still has only one ac­cess road, as was the norm dur­ing apartheid, which causes huge stress when emer­gency ve­hi­cles try to get in and out dur­ing dis­as­ters. More than half of those liv­ing un­der th­ese dire cir­cum­stances are chil­dren. De­spite hav­ing had an ex­cel­lent high school since 2005, most of the youth are un­em­ployed and des­per­ately look­ing for jobs. Many of them will be first-time vot­ers.

Let us not say af­ter the next elec­tion that we didn’t know. We know in his­tory what hap­pens when a ma­jor­ity chooses to turn a blind eye to dan­ger­ous de­vel­op­ments and di­vert its at­ten­tion to the “good things in life”.

Of course, there are some cyn­ics who have al­ready pre­pared for the worst and, should Malema’s EFF get sub­stan­tial sup­port, are rec­on­ciled to leav­ing the coun­try and go­ing to wher­ever they can take their as­sets.

But, af­ter liv­ing for more than a decade in this most re­source­ful coun­try, I am con­vinced that the ma­jor­ity of South Africans want their coun­try to flour­ish – and no­body to live in hor­ri­ble poverty – yet only lack the vi­sion, or trust, to con­trib­ute to mean­ing­ful change be­yond sim­ply vot­ing in elec­tions.

Again, Masi­phumelele pro­vides in­sights. Af­ter hav­ing sur­vived many chal­lenges, each of them of­fer­ing cru­cial lessons, the Amakhaya Ngoku Hous­ing Project is near­ing the fi­nal phase with the build­ing of the last 120 flats for the re­main­ing fire vic­tims still liv­ing on an open field. As in the first phase of con­struc­tion, 95 per­cent of the pri­vate fund­ing is com­ing from over­seas. Rightly, most of th­ese over­seas donors won­der why South Africans with re­sources do not con­trib­ute sub­stan­tially, but they have done so only in char­ity-style mea­sures so far. Again, al­most R4m has been com­mit­ted from the UK and Ger­many, on con­di­tion that the same amount will be raised within South Africa. Im­pos­si­ble? Let’s see.

One par­tic­u­lar ini­tia­tive de­serves ap­plause. Some neigh­bours from small com­mu­ni­ties around Masi­phumelele have formed a group called ubuMel­wane ( neigh­bour­hood) and have met with Masi ac­tivists.

They have learned why neigh­bours are fiercely against any sec­ond ac­cess road and why all of­fi­cial “land au­dits” claim that va­cant land is ei­ther “pri­vately owned” or, if owned by the city, “is not fea­si­ble for hous­ing”. It prob­a­bly will never be made fea­si­ble un­less enough peo­ple speak out for it.

But those who started ubuMel­wane are more and more aware of the chal­lenges and will not turn a blind eye soon again. Let’s not for­get that “Ngoku” in the hous­ing project’s name means: Now!

● Dr Van Dijk, au­thor of A His­tory of Africa, is the co-founder of Hok­isa (Homes for Kids in South Africa, www.hok­ and a vol­un­teer fundraiser for the Amakhaya Ngoku hous­ing project (www.amakhayan­ in Masi­phumelele.


BREAK­THROUGH: So far, the Amakhaya Ngoku project has pro­vided 232 two-room flats with so­lar-heated wa­ter to the Masi­phumele fire vic­tims of 2006, and a com­mu­nity hall.


FOR­EIGN AID: Co-op­er­a­tion across the di­vi­sions of the past can work. Shar­ing means giv­ing sub­stan­tially, not just crumbs from the ta­ble, and not re­ly­ing on in­ter­na­tional do­na­tions, says the writer.

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