‘Coloured’ communities face serious, but not insurmountable challenges!

2016-07-01 15:59

Poverty is a socio-economic phenomenon characterised by a lack of basic necessities, development opportunities and social acceptance, as well as insecurity, hopelessness and a bleak existence. It cuts across skin colour, ethnicity, language, gender, religion and culture. However, the nature of poverty differs between and within communities.

Any action or intervention attempting to assist communities to overcome poverty, must take cognisance of the context within which poverty manifests itself in a particular community. If not, the intervention will bring about temporary and cosmetic relief only.

To write about the challenges of one particular community, especially in a country such as South Africa where most people struggle for survival, can be considered parochial. One could easily be accused of pursuing sectarian interests instead of focusing on the country and all its people.

It is important, however, that in our search for constructive solutions, we should consider the difference between the political, social, cultural, economic and psychological character of the different South African communities and of their histories.

The history of the ‘coloured’ community should be seen in the context of the pre-colonial experiences of the indigenous Khoi and San peoples with which it is closely linked. These experiences included their interactions with migrating black tribes, clashes with the first European (Portuguese) seafarers and settlers, and the forced and brutal shipping of slaves by the colonial authority at the Cape. The disruption caused by these experiences contributed to the disintegration of the indigenous Khoi and San communities.

Travel reports by the earliest visitors to the Cape reveal that some of these pastoralist communities were relatively affluent. Olfert Dapper (1688), for example, wrote that the Kochoquas or Saldanhars (as they were also known) kept their cattle in the middle of the town at night time - a hundred thousand heads of cattle and approximately two hundred thousand heads of sheep in total. They were settled in 15 to 16 different towns, each housing between 30 and 50 huts. These societies were also highly organised, very entrepreneurial and based on hierarchical class distinctions

Trade with the Khoi was important as they could supply large quantities of beef and mutton to scurvy-ridden crews, who for months hadn’t enjoy fresh vegetables and meat on the long and arduous sea travels they undertook. In return the Khoi received tobacco, alcohol, copper to make jewelry and iron for manufacturing their spears and arrow heads.

After the establishment of the refreshment station in 1652, these farmers were gradually forced to relinquish their grazing pastures and also their economic independence. As the settlement at the Cape expanded, violent conflict arose between the colonists and the indigenous peoples.

The loss of their cattle, the devastating impact of colonialism, inter-tribal conflicts, alcohol abuse and various epidemics, such as the smallpox outbreak of 1713, contributed to the systematic demise of the social, economic and political structures of these indigenous communities.

The importation of thousands of slaves from Africa, Madagascar, India, Indonesia, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and other countries gradually resulted in socio-economic integration between the various communities and gave rise to a new workers' class. This new workers' class was subjected to a social order in which skin colour, appearance and especially racial classification became the determining factors for upward social mobility.

Over time, discriminating measures and Apartheid legislation were promulgated, marginalising the community socially, politically and economically and causing widespread enslavement and economic and educational stagnation.

Numerous researchers agree that for a large segment of the ‘coloured’ community an identity of marginalisation became one of the biggest stumbling blocks for greater self-reliance and self-sustainability. Discriminatory measures and Apartheid legislation in the previous (and even the present) dispensation resulted in large scale misery and disempowerment of this community. Yet, it is particularly the aspect of marginalisation that needs to be addressed if we wish to make a significant impact on the nature and extent of ‘coloured’ poverty and decay in ‘coloured’ residential areas.

State intervention aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty does exist in the form of grants, services and opportunities to all communities. However, in too many instances chronic unemployment and poor socio-economic circumstances undermine the impact of these interventions.

More importantly, however, is that it does not address the fundamental problem, that of the identity of marginalisation.

The high drop-out rate at school level, drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancies, gang involvement, high levels of brutal, gang-related crimes, poor economic achievement, low levels of tertiary education and high levels of court convictions, compared to other communities, point to a complex and deep-seated problem for which there are no obvious solutions.

According to the Medical Research Council's research group on alcohol and drug abuse the drug Tik (Methamphetamine) is now the preferred drug on the Cape Flats and in rural towns.

Most of the teenage users of Tik are ‘coloured’ boys. Tik does not only pose serious health and social dangers, but is also the cause of the most brutal murders. It is no wonder, therefore, that the number of ‘coloured’ offenders in prison is disproportionately huge compared to the rest of the population.

A report on the state of prisons in South Africa, issued by the National Institute for Crime Prevention in April 2014, showed that 18% of the inmates are ‘coloured’, while the ‘coloured’ community comprises only 9% of the total population.

The head of Statistics South Africa, Pali Lehohla, recently expressed concern over the high drop-out rate at school level and the resulting lack of skills and high unemployment rate among ‘coloured’ youth.

Research by the Council for Higher Education indicates that the number of ‘coloured’ students at institutions of higher learning has not increased proportionately, but has decreased instead.

Acquiring post-school qualifications and pursuing a career enhance upward social mobility, as it means higher salaries and a higher standard of living. The income levels of the ‘coloured’ working class, however, are lagging far behind, a direct result of low training levels, limited employment opportunities and marginalisation.

The widespread rationalisation of teachers' posts in ‘coloured’ communities after 1994 resulted in a massive exodus of teacher expertise. This, together with the prevailing socio-economic degeneration, is indicative of a serious crisis begging for solutions.

Development practitioners agree that communities who take control over the available economic, cultural and educational instruments themselves and who help to give content to it, have a greater prospect of achieving success. In contrast, communities who have purposefully been excluded from economic, cultural and educational networks find themselves trapped in a culture of dependency.

Such communities never overcome the identity of marginalisation and also do not succeed in creating an identity of self-worth and self-help. They are doomed to stagnation and decay.

Alison Gilchrist a well-known international community development practitioner, is of the opinion that communities and organisations "crystallize and develop in an environment of complex and dynamic social interactions".

In some communities, however, this intricate web of dynamic interaction has stagnated. Such communities become more homogeneous, stagnant and "frozen".

In a paper entitled ‘The well-connected community: networking to the edge of chaos’ she has the following to say: ‘Complex systems generate clusters and patterns of self-organization, some of which are more useful in a given situation and therefore more likely to survive. In human terms, groups and organizations crystallize and evolve in an environment of complex and dynamic social interactions. Complexity theory suggests that systems with low levels of connectivity and highly similar elements become ‘stagnant’ or frozen. Populations which have reached these states of isolation, fragmentation or homogeneity (either by choice or circumstances) are unable to innovate or adapt to change’.

A huge effort is required to free a large segment of the ‘coloured’ community from a state of isolation, fragmentation and homogeneity. ‘Coloured’ people in key positions in society, especially, should unlock the existing and build new economic, cultural and educational networks to promote ownership and wealth creation for the ‘coloured’ community in general. Ploughing back into communities where one has grown up, is a noble cause. It does not in any way subvert the vision of a non-racial society, in fact it seeks to strengthen the constitutional ideal of a just and egalitarian society.

Hence the terrible injustice suffered by previous generations of ‘coloured’ people in the Cape - the Khoisan and slaves - warrants extensive economic intervention grounded in self-help, self-esteem and entrepreneurship. There is an urgent need for introspection amongst ‘coloured’ intelligentsia, business and community leaders on how to go about to achieve these outcomes.

It should however not degenerate into fruitless talk shops, but rather come up with a unique financed plan with specific economic, educational and cultural outcomes to enable ‘coloured’ people to take up their rightful place in the rainbow nation. One that should enable them to compete successfully and collaborate as equals with fellow South Africans in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.

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