It’s for the poor

2010-09-16 00:00

IF you had arrived in South Africa during the public service strike and stayed on until today, you would be forgiven for thinking that until then, all South African children were receiving an excellent education and our health system was second to none.

You might have thought that service delivery was happening at breakneck speed only for the momentum to be lost because public service employees wanted a percentage-and-a-half more than the state said it is willing to pay or could afford.

You might even be tempted to believe that all the talk about the strike hitting the poorest harder than anyone meant that we are ordinarily a country of people who care about where the poor go to school or what kind of health care they get when they are ill.

Thankfully, not everyone had left our beautiful country for long enough to be taken in by this “blame the strikers for all our problems” brigade.

There was no strike earlier this year when, according to the SABC, “about 200 premature babies have died at the Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital in the Eastern Cape between January and May this year. The deaths are said to be blamed on poor ventilation and oxygen systems at the hospital.”

There was no strike when 17 babies died in two Gauteng hospitals, deaths that Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi blamed on overcrowding and “a lapse in infection control”.

We did not have a strike last year, yet of the 580 577 pupils who sat for the matric exams, 228 747 failed. The problems that have made schools like Sobantu High notoriously dysfunctional cannot be glossed over and a strike cannot blamed for the poor results that get produced year after year.

The quality of the public goods meant for the poor has never been great in our country. It is also pretentious to imagine that the poor, especially in townships and rural areas, were the hardest hit by the strike. Then again, they are the ones for whom public servants are always on strike.

Of course, strikers had an impact on the quality of the services delivered by the state. But it is totally disingenuous to pretend that we have a perfectly functional system that occasionally gets interrupted by an unthinking mob.

Instead of mouthing meaningless platitudes about saving “the poor” from malicious newspapers that have written scandalous stories about them, our government could fix the schools and clinics to demonstrate this love it says it has for “our people”.

Not to waste the “tribunal to serve the interest of the poor” momentum, I am certain that the wretched of Earth will be eternally grateful if our loving government would also think of setting up similar forums to help those mothers whose babies died because of negligence at state facilities but who are too poor to launch any meaningful legal challenge against the hospitals.

A tribunal to help the poor who want to sue the state because their family members have died or were permanently injured at the hands of the police following orders from the top brass to “shoot to kill” wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

While the government is at it, it might think of what kind of interventions it has for the poor who continue to succumb to respiratory illnesses directly linked to living close to oil refineries but, like the defamed poor, have no hope of defeating the multinationals if they were to face them in court to argue their case.

And instead of complaining of the “profit motive” that causes newspapers to exploit the poor, the ruling party has the capacity to change laws to create a macro-economic order it approves of.

The point of all this is that other than the meaningless platitudes we raise about what we are all doing for the poor, we are a society that couldn’t really be bothered. If anybody believes that all this talk about the media appeals tribunal is about the poor then the joke is on them.

The poor are a convenient bunch to have in a democracy. For as long as they exist, all you have to do as a political outfit is to claim you are doing “something” for them or in their interest. Politicians, at least in our country, would be worse off were poverty to be eradicated. What else will they sell to this captive audience? Politicians must be among those people who hope that the biblical injunction that the poor will always be with us, is literally true.

There already are countries, like Denmark or Switzerland, that have proven that the poor need not always be with us. Instead of chanting slogans about the poor, those in power would have a greater chance of the impoverished being forever grateful if they in fact take visible measures to eradicate the poverty that continues to deny our fellow citizens their basic human dignity.

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