There is a very small lad that begs at the stop street outside our Estate on the North Coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal. He is that small because of his severely contorted feet and legs that he drags along the tar whilst heaving himself forward on his crutches. He is 16 years old though he looks much younger and at the same time very old.
As I come and go from our estate, I wonder how a lad like this comes to be in the position he is in; body broken; future non-existent; a desperate human being. But to be totally honest, for me – a member of the privileged class of our country – he often becomes simply another demand albeit heart-breaking, on my wallet. How often I have returned from my day and recoiled as I saw him. With the greatest will in the world, I get so tired of the poverty; the sickening stench of inequality; just too many car guards, too many beggars, too many unemployed people, too many drunkards and drug addicts. One cannot possibly keep up. This country can be overwhelming in its lack. But I am so fortunate – so “blessed” as we might say – that I get to go to my home at day’s end, have a nice whiskey and a hot meal and blot out all that lack from my mind.
And in truth we live constantly in the tension caused by obscene inequality. It is just a part of our everyday reality and our collective psyche has been seared numb; we look but we don’t see; we listen but we don’t hear; we smell but we wind up the window and put on the aircon. But it is simply too dangerous to continue responding in this way – or is it?
Suddenly, a firm capitalist favourite comes to power and the air suddenly smells sweet again. We drink it in and we toast the future. And the little lad at the stop street is less of a frustration somehow. We buy him a pie and a Coke. Now everyone is happy – the post-Zuma vibe is euphoric. The Rand strengthens – awesome! The stock market goes up – hooray! Unemployment will almost certainly decline along with poverty and inequality and crime – woohoo! The NHI is still on the cards; nice idea but…; Free higher education and tax increases to support it – now hold on a moment, it’s getting hot in this kitchen. Let’s rewind a little to all that good stuff can’t we? Expropriation of land without compensation – now stop right there you are going way too far! That’s never worked and it will destroy our economy and it violates our rights and we will go the way of Zimbabwe and who knows who had land stolen and when anyway. Our fear runneth over.
But we have missed the point totally – again: the economy is not the point – dignity is the point; humanity is the point; equal opportunities; long overdue redress – that’s the point. Our little lad at the stop street, what does he care about the economy? After over two decades of broken promises – what do millions of South Africans care? What do I care? I care just enough to sacrifice the cost of a pie and a coke. This is no longer good enough.
In response to the emotional-more-than-economic issues of our time: land expropriation without compensation, free tertiary education, the NHI – we might consider not so much what we might lose – but the lost; those people who do not know what it feels like to live a dignified existence let alone a privileged one. Perhaps we could see – really see – a lad with contorted legs eking out no more than a pathetic existence; a family whose umpteenth shack has been destroyed by fire; a mother – unemployed and destitute – caring daily for her 15-year old Down’s Syndrome daughter on a grant of no more than a few Rand a day. Perhaps we could see the classroom in which 150 learners get packed; see it; hear it; smell it; taste it. Not just put up our protectionist, pseudo-academic arguments for why attempts to right the wrongs – the evils – of the past, will fail.
Perhaps we might not turn first to fear-filled racist rhetoric; parrot the endless “look what happened to Zimbabwe” nonsense. Might we not ask how can we help to restore dignity and well-being to people? Might we not ask how we could possibly contribute to a constructive dialogue around how to bring our people out of poverty and dispossession; how to make land expropriation work? Might we not ask these questions before we ask how we can safeguard our pension/get out of this place/protect our land?
Finally, if we imagine that land expropriation is the most dangerous thing for our economy and our country at large then we aren’t paying attention.
Inequality is the real time bomb.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.
“No one is going to lose his or her house. No one is going to lose his or her flat. No one is going to lose his or her factory or industry.” EFF Leader Julius Malema.
Calm is needed around the issue of expropriation of land without compensation. We run the risk of this becoming the most polarising issue of our post-1994 democracy and it really needn’t be. In fact, I would suggest that this issue could – if we view it slightly differently – become one that further unifies us South Africans and strengthens the bonds that have developed between us over the past two decades.
The reason I say this is because most people I speak to or listen to on radio agree on so many of the fundamentals around the issue of land expropriation: They agree that imbalances in land ownership are still a major stumbling block to the realisation of the dream of a fair and equal, democratic society; they agree that land that was unfairly stripped from black people, needs to be returned; they agree that progress in terms of land redistribution has been slow to the point of near non-existent. So, unless we harbour prejudices aside from the actual issue at hand – redress of the wrongs of the past concerning land ownership – we are largely in agreement that things need to change. How often does that happen, especially with such an explosive issue as land?
It is at this point in the land expropriation without compensation conversation that fear kicks in: What will happen to my land? What will happen to the economy (or put another way, my savings, my pension)? And to justify my fear (as if fear needed justifying) I turn to tried and trusted arguments: Look what happened in Zimbabwe; It is a disaster when unqualified people are given land they do not know how to farm.
But these arguments and questions are futile and unhelpful for the very reason that they elicit more fear and bring about further polarization. More useful (if more difficult) questions will guide us back to productive solutions and ultimately, unity – even if we disagree on how things finally get done: How do we empower our people with land in a responsible manner? How do we put our differences aside to make this happen? What needs to be done to ensure that expropriation, or rather redistribution, benefits the recipients and the economy at large? What needs to happen to allay the fears of all current land-owners? How do we ensure food security?
This issue needs to be handled with such levels of care and sensitivity. That sensitivity should begin with us – the citizens – and how we think of and speak about this issue.
But land redistribution (lets be cautious of the language we use to describe this) should happen, and will happen whatever we think and whatever we fear. We must acknowledge the deep pain around this issue and be open to the possibilities that it represents.
As I write this I am watching a TV screen that is flashing up the plummeting value of our post-junk-status Rand.
I pick up my phone and the anti-Zuma rants pour in on social media. An e-mail comes from a pastor friend inviting us to “pray up, speak up, stand up, march up, and shout from the rooftops, against the firing of Gordhan and his deputy, against Zuma’s shameless blatant ‘treasury capture’ to further pillage and rape the nation’s resources for his own ends of security and power.” My wife sends me news of a local march we can join.
We march, we pray and we speak out as many South Africans have. But is it just me or does this response seem so inadequate, so uncreative, given the scale of the evil against which we are protesting? Are these actions our only answer to a president who is committing willful acts of violence against our people? I ask this as a person who fully believes in the power of prayer and protest.
Violence? Yes, I use this word deliberately. I believe this is where we have gone horribly wrong in our assessment of Jacob Zuma and hence how we deal with him. Jacob Zuma is not just a corrupt man. Jacob Zuma is a violent man.
A Sanskrit definition that proves this point says that non-violence is: “A lack of desire to harm or kill; the personal practice of being harmless to self and others under every condition.” By this definition, our president is a violent man; out to harm people through stealing from them; systematically destroying our currency and hence the value of people’s savings, pensions and grants. He is killing our economy, squeezing every drop of life out of it for himself and his cronies. And the ultimate insult? This is all being doing in the name of ‘radical economic transformation’; that absolute necessity that has thus far eluded our post-apartheid democracy without which we simply cannot succeed.
And all the while our poor are getting poorer, hungrier and sicker; people will undoubtedly die because of Zuma’s acts of violence. They will starve because their grants will no longer afford them the necessities they need to survive as junk status rips our economy to shreds. They will be unable to afford transport to clinics to get life-saving medication.
Please let us stop reducing Jacob Zuma to such relative niceties as some buffoon with a shower rose on his head. Jacob Zuma is a calculating, violent despot who must be made to answer a litany of charges including why he willfully and knowingly brought yet more poverty and starvation to the poorest of the poor in our country, by knowingly taking us into a junk bin.
But the question in all this is within democratic and peaceful parameters, what do we ordinary citizens do to rid our country of such a violent man? Are praying and marching – both of which are powerful and necessary – our only options? Must we wait for the 2019 general election? Or are there other tools?
I do not know specifically what you should do in your unique world with your unique skills and passions. Only you will know that. All I do know is that we need to do more:
If you are a spiritual person, begin an inter-faith, national prayer chain that prays continually – not for 24 hours but until Jacob Zuma is removed from power. As a student, form a protest group like the anti-apartheid demonstration that occupied the steps of South Africa House in London for 1408 days in the late 1980’s. As a musician, organise a concert of all the biggest acts in our country in aid of the victims of Jacob Zuma’s regime. If you or your establishment has a South African flag, fly it at half-mast until Zuma is deposed. At the very least spread peace and tolerance in every interaction you have with your follow South Africans and do not allow racist rhetoric to win the day.
And as for the privileged amongst us, we must actively close the gap between rich and poor that is being widened by Zuma. We must pay decent living wages and empower people with skills. We must embody the radical economic transformation that our President uses to justify his pillaging of our nation.
We cannot just march as we did last Friday and this Wednesday, as a once off. It takes years – sometimes decades – of sustained and focused national and international effort and pressure to bring down corrupt regimes and despotic leaders.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole.