Monthly Archives: January, 2014

Poverty is an expensive and sometimes fatal condition.


Poverty (This image is used under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial Licence: posted by siddashi in flickr)

Last week a mother in Limpopo sent her five-year old boy to school and he never came back. She must have bid him goodbye with a mixture of pride and the kind of longing that is common to parents and their little ones temporarily parting. But that was not a big deal, after all she would see him later that day on his return from school. How was she to know that because her social conditions dictated that she lives where she does, she would lose her son that day? See, Chebeng is a poor rural village on the outskirts of Polokwane. Electricity and water have not made their way to this village as yet, maybe they will one day. So the school little Michel Komape attended used the toilet system that many rural villages without council-supplied sanitation use, the long-drop, otherwise known as a pit latrine or toilet.

I know this system quite well because my school used it too. But that was 30 odd years ago, but I still remember that I developed a strong dislike for public toilets because of the way the school long-drops were designed. They differed in design from the one at home. I was scared – I resorted holding things in till I got home, or the closest bush to school on my way home. Poor little Michael Komape must have been scared too. But poverty led him to those pit toilets. He fell inside and drowned. (So my fears were justified all those years ago!).

Spare a thought for the residents of Mtititi village in Limpopo. They have no access to tap water too and must push twenty-litre plastic containers in a wheelbarrow to fetch water in another village 3 to 5 km away. That was a common occurrence in many villages years ago. Their ward councilor is quoted in the Sowetan newspaper as saying “this means the elderly must buy water”, because there’s no way they can get to the next village themselves. Imagine buying a resource that everybody gets for free simply because you are old, and yes poor. And your elected councilor can only sympathize with you, not tell you of the grand scheme that government has waiting in the wings to get rid of poverty.

The situation is not very different for the residents of Mothlutung in the North West province, 900km away from Mtititi in Limpopo. They went for a full two weeks without running water, leading them to embark on street protests. It’s alleged that some councilors benefited improperly from the poor citizens’ predicament by hiring out water trucks to the council to provide water to the same residents they represent. Talk about poverty being expensive, and fatal. In the protests that followed, four residents lost their lives in clashes with the police.

How about the case of the Malawian national who drowned in a diesel tank ? He arrived in South Africa in October 2013, obviously trying  to escape the lack of work opportunities back home. He must have thought the City of Gold, Johannesburg was indeed heaven on earth when he secured a job at a Boksburg filling station on the day he arrived. Poverty back home was in trouble. All he had to do was go down into an underground diesel reservoir, several thousands of litres in size, and do the cleaning. Poverty had made sure that he would not question the safety of the job he was to do. See, he had no idea poverty was a sin in his new country, the wages of which was death. So he went underground and fell into the reservoir and died. And no, the situation is not limited to the inland only.

Take the informal settlement of Khayelitsha in the picturesque coastal city of Cape Town. Last year this settlement which has shacks built so close to each other that it becomes impossible to police lost 354 of its citizens to murder. The rest of South Africa has one policemen for every three hundred citizens but Khayelitsha has one policemen for every thousand citizens. In other words being poor in the Design Capital Of the World, Cape Town, makes you more likely to end up a murder victim. Is it not enough that poor folk live in deplorable conditions, now they also have to contend with the possibility of dying because they are poor?

It goes without saying that the more poor your location is, the more likely you are to end up on the streets demanding one thing or the other in some form of protest.

Andries Tatane, the part-time school teacher from Ficksburg in the Free State is the most well-known of the victims of the so-called service delivery protests. So-called because I believe their root cause is nothing but that fatal condition called poverty. So they are poverty protests in other words. Tatane holds the dubious honour of having been shot on national television surrounded by eight policemen but without a single conviction being returned for his death.

Not so lucky too were the 34 miners who also lost their lives in the full glare of media cameras in Marikana, a mining village in the Platinum Belt. No that wasn’t a poverty protest, it was a wages protest you might say. But listen to this. The workers who contribute to the profits of huge corporations like Amplats live in a little settlement in Marikana. This settlement, on the edge of multimillion-rand mining operations consists of shacks not suitable for human habitation. These are the conditions those workers woke up to on the day they were mowed down in a confrontation with the police. If I were doctor I would return a diagnosis of Poverty, made worse by contributing to the enrichment of share-holders who apparently can’t be bothered by such small things as the welfare of the people who make them money. I mean, if they cared they would not threaten to withdraw their investments each time poverty victims sought to make their fatal condition just a little more tolerable.

In 2013 a well-to-do white family, Julian and Ena Hewitt made a conscious decision to move to a black township (Mamelodi) in Pretoria to experience what life was like for their domestic worker, or an average black person in South Africa. They did this for a month. Before you scoff at this social experiment you might want to know what some of their findings were. They chose to live in a corrugated-iron shack, live off the type of food that everybody ate and used the same transport system that their domestic worker uses. For me, their most important finding was how 50% of their domestic workers’ wages went to transport. 50%! (This is why I go really mad when people say stop blaming everything on apartheid, ‘that was so twenty years ago’). Think about it, if half your salary went towards getting you to and from work would you still want to go there? Yet, poor people do that. Everyday. And they keep this country working.

That’s why I have an immense amount of respect for anybody who does even the smallest thing towards the eradication of poverty. And, as we prepare for our elections, we need to keep in mind that it’s not all about us(‘my country this, my country that’), it’s largely about the man and woman on the street. Our combined actions should always be targeted at getting rid of poverty, or in  the meantime, making it less expensive and definitely not fatal.

Tribalism Makes You Stupid

Tribalism is bigotry. (This image used under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial Licence:www.creative

Tribalism is bigotry. (This image used under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial Licence:www.creative

How I wish I had come up with that title myself, I would retire on its wisdom. Alas, tech-billionaire Mark Shuttleworth beat me to it in one of his blogposts in 2010. But I can still claim the credit for bringing it to your attention. I’ll come back to its merits a little later.

I was a bit startled when I heard reports that Former President Thabo Mbeki has acknowledged that there are instances or indications of tribalism in the sphere of government operations, and by extension in the ruling party, the African National Congress(ANC). Startled because before his admission, there had never been a high-level leader of the ANC who had dared to admit publicly to the existence of racism’s equally-evil twin, tribalism. Shuttleworth calls it the “great-granddaddy of racism and sexism”. I agree. We only differ on its place in that despicable family of bigotry.

Tribalism, like racism, apartheid and other evils like paedophilia has this funny pull towards the “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil” arena. It makes it a bit unsavory to discuss in polite company because the first one to raise it appears to be the one who is prejudiced. But therein lies its strength, in its pull towards secrecy. After all, no one wants to be the one to raise these sort of things. The first major reaction to Thabo Mbeki’s assertion has been a general chorus of “what about when you were president, didn’t you see it, don’t act holier than thou”. And an opportunity is lost to address an evil manifestation.
But we must resist that pull. We must place tribalism on the national agenda for the sake of our future. Let it not be enough to joke about “people from the North(Limpopo) are like this and amaZulu are like that”. Where we are all self-assured that I’m not a tribalist because I can laugh at its irrationality. We must get to the bottom of comments like “charity begins at home” when all we mean is I’ll only give opportunities to my home-boys. Or baPedi are arrogant when what we mean is our own tribe is all-understanding. This is the sort of logic that led all the Piets, Jans and Van Tonder’s to employ only their own people because, you guessed it, “people of my culture are easier to deal with”.

There have been murmurs of tribalism from the sidelines before. Even when Nelson Mandela was president of the ANC some murmurs could be heard about the existence of a “Xhosa Nostra”, meaning that getting ahead in the ANC or government was easier if one was of Xhosa origin. These were easily dismissed by a mere rattling off of the names of ANC National Executive Committee members who were not Xhosa and ministers serving in government who were not Xhosa. Times changed and leadership changed, new murmurs that being Zulu was not exactly a hindrance in getting ahead in government and the ANC raised their head again.

When Thabo Mbeki raised the issue again in a lecture on decolonization , they cannot be considered murmurs anymore but a serious sign that there must have been something to the original murmurs. Tribalism has now been elevated to the same level of potential threats to the future of our young democracy as racism is considered to be. None of us should be shocked if an official complaint should be lodged with the Human Rights Commission by a citizen who feels they are being discriminated against in terms of their tribal origins.

We can spend a lot of time and money trying to figure out the causes, but to any casual student of the African narrative, the causes are as clear as daylight, hence the title of the lecture that Thabo Mbeki was giving referred to “decolonization ” . Colonization in itself was bad enough, add to that the evil that apartheid was and the lengths it went to in keeping South African tribes apart, then it should come as no surprise that we have to deal with such detestable issues today. The ruling party, being the broad church that it is, cannot be immune to issues that have affected the people it governs.

Of more importance right now should be a mechanism that can determine how entrenched the issue is in government, the ruling party and our politics in general. Not a witch-hunt but a measure of the extent of the problem, and then a recognizable set of solutions. Recognizable because from our history of dealing with the lasting effects of racism we know the dangers of populists playing on the emotions of affected people promising them “true emancipation” whilst in effect using their frustration to fan the dangerous flames of racism or tribalism.

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the 1998 Kenyan post-election violence must serve as stark reminders of what can happen in a country that leaves tribal prejudice unattended. This might sound alarmist but one need only cast their minds back to the “xenophobic” violence that claimed many lives in 2008. Apartheid had taught our people well that physical differences and cultural(linguistic) differences are real differences. Thus reports that marauding groups identified their targets by asking questions like “what is an elbow in Zulu” to identify “foreigners” pointed to the lasting and entrenched damage of apartheid and colonization.

There has been an increase in the number of comments like “but Mangope did more for the people of Bophutatswana than all the other homeland leaders”. These comments come disguised as discussions about “service delivery”. But if one interrogates the argument further, one realizes that Mangope, and therefore Tswanas can take good care of themselves if left to their own devices. Just like Hudson Ntsanwisi “did so much for the Tsonga people”, sad that BaVhenda had Mphephu who was the bane of all manner of jokes. This nostalgic reminiscing has the danger of achieving what Verwoerd had intended in the first place: divide and rule, even worse, inter-tribal strife.

Tribalism, like racism and a whole host of other isms are primarily born out of a fear of what’s different. I can’t make sense of another’s culture and physical appearance so I demonize them and do all I can to keep them from advancing above my level of living. I go so far as blaming all sorts of societal ills on their existence or presence. Highly irrational. But who ever said fear was rational? I can’t get a job because people from Bushbuckridge can bewitch like nobody can, and sadly people believe that and make decisions based on that.

White people(there he goes again on the race card) must not feel exempted from this evil. It is an open secret that people from Zimbabwe “are such hard workers”, hence they fill all sorts of posts in that world. Try finding a restaurant without Zimbabwean workers if you don’t believe me. But that’s just facts, they scream?” I employed guys from the townships and all I got was one excuse after another, I can’t run my business on excuses”. And then we wonder why people “say these foreigners” are taking our jobs. All of us are to blame for its perpetuation.
Our day-to-day practices, although rationalized in a way we find acceptable, go contrary to the spirit of non-isms like non-tribalism that we like to rattle off about our new democracy. But you know what Mandela did when he came into power, he reassured the Afrikaners that they too had a place in the new administration. A simple yet powerful affirmation.

Leaders in such instances must lead by example. The way our very own Nelson Mandela dealt with racism. See, the antidote to fear is confronting that fear and exposing it for what it is, a fallacy. It’s not out of a perceived personal benefit that Mandela elevated racial harmony as a tool in social cohesion but more out of the realization that when white and black mix, fear of the other is dispelled. Sometimes the feared must extend a hand to the fearful, which Mandela did with aplomb.
In our present circumstances, government leaders can lead by example. I hope I’m not lynched for saying this but recently our President donated money to a project to have the bible translated directly from Hebrew and Greek into isiZulu. He would have done racial and tribal harmony a huge favour by initiating a project to have the bible translated directly from Greek into all 11 official languages. Expensive I know, but he would have struck a blow right at the foundation of tribalism .That would have gone a long way to confounding the critics who suggest that being of Zulu lineage confers one an advantage over others in our current circumstances.

The majority of ordinary South Africans are getting along, learning for themselves that there are no real differences between the tribes, just some superficial ones. We joke about the perceived differences, we have been marrying across tribes for years, appreciating that the cultural differences make our interactions all the more richer. Tribalism and racism leads to in-breeding and cultural “incest”, to borrow from a friend’s expression. After all, our national motto is “unity in diversity”.

Back to my title, have you ever heard the arguments advanced by those who want to “keep to myself and my people”? They like saying things like “the other guys have never done anything useful” , Mark Shuttleworth again. These people will say that and try to present you with stupid evidence like who invented what and what race or tribe they were. Being the first to do something doesn’t make your tribe better than other tribes, it just means you were first. Period. Think of a government minister who employs people from their region of birth only, their tribe that is. Doesn’t that automatically tell you how stupid this whole thing is?

It must take some sort of below par intelligence to believe that your people, your tribe has a monopoly on intelligence, hard work and innovation. Tribalism does indeed make you stupid. Like racism, sexism and homophobia.


Don’t Like The Ruling Party, Vote for Someone Else. But who?

Hi, I’m glad to let you know that I’ve had an article published on the Mail&Guardian Thoughtleader website, see the article at You can comment on the article itself or on this blog. Thanks for reading!

Things We Lost In The Struggle


Did we lose our honesty in the struggle? (This image is used under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial Licence: posted by m-a-p in flickr)

In 1993, on the eve of our first democratic election I attended one of a number of conferences that I had the privilege to attend as a member of the Young Christian Students (YCS) at Ipelegeng Community Centre in Soweto. This was really just a talk-shop, where very young minds got together to map out what we felt the New South Africa should be about. We had long debates, heated ones and not so heated ones about the last few steps in the course of our struggle against apartheid.

On the Friday night of the three-day workshop we had one Thabo Mbeki come in to address us about the role of organizations like YCS in the upcoming elections and beyond. We had 50 or so people in the room, having a relaxed exchange with a man who would become Deputy President of South Africa the following year and its president in 1999. Of course we didn’t know this at the time but we appreciated that we had the privilege of sitting in the same room as he did, and talking to him. The Saturday morning was reserved for what we called the ‘state-of-the-world’ analysis and one Jeremy Cronin led the discussion.

This Jeremy Cronin went on to become a Deputy Minister in the Department of Transport. We spoke with him about the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the ‘failure’ of socialism in Europe and what this meant for us. We discussed the ‘Has Socialism Failed?’ document (penned by the late Joe Slovo) that was highly circulated in progressive organizations at the time. Another coffee-table chat if you will. Not only did we get the feeling that we were listened to, but most importantly, that we mattered. Our opinions mattered. We were appreciative that leaders of national movements took the time to come and be with the people and listen.

This, I think, is the most valuable of the ‘Things we lost in the Struggle’. The idea that the opinions of the would-be governed matter. ‘The people’ indeed mattered and they would govern.

Some of the discussions we had centred on what we would change about the education system once we took over. No more of this Bantu education that put the African child at a disadvantage compared to the other races in our country.There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour … What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.
(Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, South African minister for native affairs (prime minister from 1958 to 66), speaking about his government’s education policies in the 1950s. As quoted in Apartheid – A History by Brian Lapping, 1987.)

We agreed that the content of the syllabus would change to reflect the true history of our country. We marveled that a small island like Cuba could have an education system that produced an excess of doctors, surely this would be the model to follow. In our enthusiasm to rid ourselves of the education of the ‘Baas’(Master), we failed to look at any positives in that system. Indeed, what positives would one expect from the likes of Verwoed.

Not surprisingly, Outcomes-Based-Education (OBE) was introduced in the  mid-90’s once the government changed. Over the years since its launch, education experts like Jonathan Jansen warned that the system was likely to produce ‘undercooked’ kids.  OBE continued but was eventually scrapped in 2009/10, but the damage was done. The first batch of products of that schooling system was found to struggle at University and other tertiary institutions.

We had thrown out the baby with the bath water. Looking back, the education system was highly flawed before the change in government but the flaw appears to have been mainly in funding not methods. The funding was highly skewed in favour of the white population. But the end of the struggle seemed to herald an era where it was ‘high treason’ to suggest that anything from the previous system worked. It didn’t matter that the previous system produced doctors who could work in the first world, most notably, in the UK, albeit mostly white doctors.

In the struggle, when most organizations were banned, the leadership of the progressive movement realized that religious organizations and leaders were one of the very few remaining voices that even the evil machinations of apartheid were circumspect to outlaw outright. Even they were scared to be seen to be ‘banning Jesus’, and the likes of Father Trevor Huddleston, Beyers Naude, Desmond Tutu, Allan Boesak, Frank Chikane, Sister Bernard Ncube and Father Smangaliso Mkhantswa became the de facto visible leaders of the struggle. They commanded respect.

This doesn’t mean they were left untouched by the evil system. Far from it. They too suffered the brunt of the system just the same. The slight difference being that outright brutality was always reserved for the ‘political activists’ as opposed to ‘church leaders’. The leadership of the progressive front listened to what the church leadership had to say.

The ‘end’ of the struggle brought an end to the significance of ‘moral leadership’. One wonders what would have happened if the prominence of religious leaders had been maintained well into democracy. Would there be a need for a Moral Regenaration Movement today? Would the swindling of public funds be at the levels that it’s at today? I doubt it. Another of one ‘The Things We Lost in The Struggle’.

Perhaps the biggest positive attribute that we lost in the struggle is honest self-appraisal. The document that I referred to earlier, ‘Has Socialism Failed?’ was an honest look at the system of government that we held in high esteem during the struggle, not necessarily because it was a successful system of government but because communist countries provided the most support to African countries battling colonialism. What the West abhorred as an evil system we hailed as the ideal.

But even then, when Mikhail Gorbachev introduced perestroika and glasnost that gave us a peak behind the Iron Curtain, some of our leaders were bold enough to question that ideal system. Although never an out-and-out admission that communism was a flawed ideal, the document went out of its way to acknowledge that the people that we hailed as heroes were not necessarily always heroes. Self-appraisal meant that we could look at ourselves and judge ourselves critically.

Today, anyone who questions the weaknesses and personal failings of the leadership of the rulers is labelled ‘anti-progressive with liberal tendencies’, a counter-revolutionery. Steve Biko ensured that no self-respecting cadre would ever want to be referred to as a liberal, not in South Africa anyway. Liberals chose to fight the apartheid system from within, they joined the Democratic Party(or Progressive party) in the racist politics of the past. Liberals, although appearing to fight the system, benefitted from the system. To be called a liberal now is far from desirable.

The ability of the Left to look in the mirror and say I don’t like what I see in the mirror is heavily curtailed by the fear that such an honest self-appraisal is tantamount to signing a form declaring oneself an enemy of the National Democratic Struggle(NDS) which has always demanded loyalty to the cause at all times.

But blind loyalty is what allowed Joseph Stalin to preside over a brutal system in the Soviet Union in the name of ‘the cause’. Blind loyalty is what is stifling open debate in the movement about whether the electoral system that we have right now is a suitable one to achieve our desired goals. Blind loyalty breeds fear. A fear that if I speak out, I might be signing a form declaring the end of the benefits that come with being in the right circles within the ruling party.

Blind loyalty is what we got when we lost honest self-appraisal in the struggle. It requires loyalty to a fault. Some people even mistake Nelson Mandela’s unquestionable loyalty to the African National Congress as an example of why we should never ‘betray’ the movement by speaking out. But they fail to understand that the organization that he chose to remain loyal to has morphed into one that now seeks to protect the benefits of the few who are not living out the ideals of Nelson Mandela’s ANC.

Yes a lot has changed. I would never have written this freely in the past. The ruling party brought me the freedom to write this freely. But let’s not forget, these hard-won freedoms require each of us never to betray the ideals that got us here. Honest discussion about where we are and how we should proceed is a healthy sign that things have changed.

But we remain fearful. We dare not say that five more years of the current leadership is five more years too many. And we keep looking back, looking back to the years when we looked forward to a new South Africa. Looking back because at least then we could hold on to those things before we lost them, looking back, wondering how we can reclaim The Things We Lost in The Struggle.

I honestly long for the day when The President can stand up in Parliament and say, we have made mistakes. We let a few things run away from us (with us), but now we want to reclaim the things we lost in the struggle. A good starting place would be the unmatched honesty that Thabo Mbeki and Jeremy Cronin displayed that weekend in Soweto when they reaffirmed that ‘the people shall govern’.

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