When my dearest friend Rose asked me to address the Child Welfare AGM in August I had really hoped to speak of something bright, humorous or even inspirational. Unfortunately, August the 16th – marked the first anniversary of the heinous Marikana Massacre, and the way the day played out really dampened my spirits, but gave me some insights that I want to share with you.
What was supposed to be a day of National remembrance and reflection, was overshadowed by truly petty politics. The ANC and union NUM boycotted the event on account of AMCU hosting the proceeding. Julius Malema launched a coup d'état on memorial proceedings in that all politicians were given strictly 3 minutes to talk and he of course was the only one who went on for over ten. Then Zwelenzima Vavi stole the show with a dramatic press conference calling all sorts of fouls and attempted to restore some of his personal honour.
All the while grieving families, friends and colleagues of miners, police and guards alike mourned their tragic losses. In fact I think the whole affair was a complete mockery of the atrocity, which is often likened to the June 16 Sharpville massacre: commemorate each year as a public holiday.
In the blatant absence of Leadership the media did their best to highlight the anniversary with tributes and special reports. But I got the feeling that South Africans were generally indifferent to the whole affair. Certainly no-one I know even realised it was being commemorated until I brought it up. “Gosh - a year already? Hmmph. Do you take milk?” I was rattled by the cool, naive responses I received, and wondered how we, as South Africans, had become so numb to the crimes committed against our citizens.
But then I realised that we have been conditioned to be indifferent. I am not sure if you are familiar with the term Habitation? But it is basically a term used in Psychology to describe the process of becoming accustomed to stimuli to such an extent, that we are simply less responsive or reactive to it. If you have ever been in a room with a clock: tick, tick, ticking… You will at first notice the sound, pay attention, and in some way be affected by it. It might even irritate you, but after a while – you won’t even notice the sound anymore. This is known as the process of habituation.
Daily, we hear reports of corruption, maladministration, murder, rape, abuse. Such a repeated overload of “what’s wrong with the world” can be defeating, numbing… and we become less responsive, less outraged. We knock back the morning news with a cup of coffee, sparing a tisk tisk for the sorry state of affairs and go on with our day. In fact, we know so many horrific stories aren’t even reported on because of the sheer volume. We have become habituated! Now don’t get me wrong: I believe South Africans do care and I think we are some of the most empathetic people in the world (I admit I’m biased), but it isn’t empathy that is going to change our future prospects for the better.
What troubles me is that we have so many hard won rights and freedoms today. The right to vote regardless of gender, race or class. The freedom of speech and movement. The right for people regardless of race or sexual orientation to live together and in a manner they choose to. Freedom of association to choose our political organisation, religion or union representation. We should be living in a free and open society… but we’re not… and it’s our own fault. We are guilty of failing to protect, and use these rights and freedoms responsibly.
uTata Madiba said South Africa belongs to all who choose to live in it. This comes with individual freedom, responsibility, rights and duties that need to be exercised to ensure a free and open society. Any threat to the rule of law, human rights, political and economic freedom must be challenged.
There are many options to us. We can get involved in the electoral process by standing for election, overseeing elections are free and fair or even just by voting. We can insist the Government is open and transparent by entrusting us with the information that belongs to us. Locally, we could request to have a Council newsletter distributed, or to have a citizen’s hour before a Council meeting where the public can ask questions. Government has public participation processes prescribed to it in the Constitution and other legislation. Public hearings, objection and complaints procedures, petitions, and so forth. But these are only effective if we use them.
Recently a Port Alfred resident phoned me to tell me that he had smelled strong chlorine fumes in the Port Alfred water. He was worried because his child’s exczema had been flaring up and suspected the water could be to blame. He used a pool chlorine test which registered chlorine levels of over 3 parts per million – the highest the test could show. Keeping in mind that municipal supply used for drinking should be no more than 0.3 parts per million and a maximum of 0.5 parts per million for a very short term. I offered to take up the matter immediately, but he told me he had already contacted someone from the Amathole Water Board responsible for the monitoring of our supply who was going to test our water and would call me the next day with the results. The results came back that normal chlorine doses were being used, but when he repeated the test, the next day – the chlorine level had completely diminished. We will still follow this up, but it is an example of an ordinary person like you and I, speaking up about something that was wrong and making use of the channels available to do something that caused a change.
When people ask me why I became a Politician. I tell them I am not, and have no desire to be a Politician, I just want to be an activist. Government is just one such avenue in which I find myself as a result of a series of events and opportunities. I heard once that when decent people stay out of politics they shouldn’t be surprised when politics becomes indecent. And I decided: if I can occupy one seat – I know it is one less corrupt official I need to complain about.
Non-Governmental Organisation such as Child Welfare are essential for the participatory role it plays in South Africa. Rose, Gladys, Zelda, Nomhle, Phumla, Lucille, Portia attend to the worst symptoms of a very dysfunctional society: the neglect, abuse and abandonment of the most undeserving and innocent of our citizens. Can our society not see that no tall trees will ever grow where seeds and saplings are defiled? We should realise that the overwhelming pressure on charity organisations and NGO’s to continuously do their best to minimise the effects of Government and societal failures is unnatural.
There are a number of you here today who are serving your community, so I do feel like I am speaking to the converted. Your efforts need to be multiplied. We need to strengthen our civil society and encourage public participation. It is not to not only focus on the symptoms of our dysfunctional society but the causes. There will always be a need for NGO’s and charity organisation, but if we attend to the causes – the burden on this organisations will be reduced.
We have a lack of leadership in this country. And we need to ask ourselves: to whom does this country belong? The Marikana Massacre would not have happened if Government didn’t dictate to business and if Clothing, furniture and money lenders had not given out credit so recklessly. The statistics Rose read out to would not be so terrifying if when we know information or of an injustice, and spoke out about it. It may be from fear of retaliation, fear that we might become unpopular or fear that nothing will change anyway so why bother. A consequence of habituation.
At the Lead SA’s 3rd anniversary event: Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu said in his address that "Strong societies have strong civil societies, with citizens who are active and engaged, who, through their active engagement, have earned the right to hold their leadership to account." The slogan “Amandla, Awethu” Power to the people has become hollow and meaningless as it is chanted at every major political event to orchestrate emotion. The reality is that - we have given up our power.
You are ordinarily extraordinary in that you have rights, and freedoms – what will you do with them? Will you be outragred, speak out against what is wrong and will you take back your power?
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