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.