Democracy is for everyone

2008-05-19 00:00

I was speaking to the girlfriend of a Zimbabwean gardener who works in our street. Once or twice a year, her boyfriend returns home to visit his wife and child. When the time approaches for him to leave, she helps him buy clothes and toys for his wife, gives him money and lovingly sends him on his way in an overloaded car.

Having witnessed this a couple of times, I eventually asked her if it made her heart sore that he was going to visit his wife.

“No,” she said simply. “She is a woman too, and her child is starving. I must help her.”

This basic human kindness in the face of a situation that I can’t even begin to contemplate really touched me. I felt encouraged that, while our government ministers do little to protest the flagrant abuses of democracy happening just across our borders, this woman is doing what she can to help another.

In light of my cheerfulness about charity and sisterhood, the outbreaks of xenophobic attacks in Alexandra are a sad reflection of the sentiment of the masses.

That people are tired of crime and poverty is understandable. That the inflow of cheap labour in the form of desperate Zimbabweans is losing locals desperately-needed jobs is sadly also true. And that the resulting increase in unemployment is seeing crime committed by Zimbabweans and South Africans will no doubt get people riled up.

There is no quick fix for Zimbabwe. Even if international pressure toppled Mugabe (the man who couldn’t even win a rigged election), it would take a long time to rebuild a freefalling economy. Even with Mugabe toppled, there is an entire pyramid of corrupt supporters who would have to be removed as well.

But killing Zimbabwe’s desperate citizens when they come to a country that has democratic freedom in search of work because their children are starving isn’t a solution. It’s only going to make people angrier and more desperate.

Of course, it’s difficult to ask people to see beyond their own situations. Very little has changed economically for a vast proportion of the South African population since democracy. Even if foreign individuals who are committing crime and stealing jobs are a pointless outlet for frustration, it is an understandable one.

To ask people to see the bigger picture, to petition the government, to vote for those with policies of action rather than “quiet diplomacy”, is expecting a lot.

Last weekend, I went on a tour to Soweto (to the reader who responded to my column by saying he hoped I wouldn’t get raped and mugged, thank you very much, I didn’t). The final stop was a visit to the Hector Pieterson museum.

Walking through the museum is a gruelling experience. It is erected on the spot where the young Pieterson was shot by the police in the June 16 uprising. The museum is uplifting in that it exists. South Africa is a democracy and the senseless deaths of those children eventually attracted the attention of the world and brought freedom to this country.

Whatever truths may be spoken about the state of unemployment and education in this country today, that the people of this country are free cannot be denied and there is great value in that, even if it is only a state of mind.

Our fellow Zimbabweans are not free. A friend of mine left the museum in tears not because of what she saw there, but because similar human rights abuses are happening elsewhere and nothing is being done about it.

As South Africans we need to remember that it was not so long ago that we needed the support of the rest of the world to become a democracy. And more than anything, it’s important to remember our humanity.

Like the woman who lives in my street and helps her boy-friend’s wife, we have to do what we can to help the individuals fleeing a terrible situation. And really, we have to stop killing each other.

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