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.
We have a national treasure in the National Treasury. There is little doubt that Pravin Gordhan now embodies this highest of unofficial titles; a title that we have applied to only a handful of men and women in the past few decades.
I realised just how fast this man was approaching national treasure status when I recently found myself with him on an SA Airlink flight to Nelspruit. Wearing a tweed cap to shield his shiny pate from the brutal Lowveld sun, he humbly agreed to having his photo taken with scores of fans whilst we waited on the runway to board our flight. Person after person – South Africans of all descriptions – took selfies with the Minister of Finance. Bear in mind that this man has held the most loathed title in any society; that of “tax man”. Bear in mind that this man revolutionised tax collection in our country during his time at SARS. Bear in mind that for years he has lightened our pockets by increasing taxes; bear in mind that he has done this whilst the public purse has been simultaneously lightened by all those entrusted to hold its strings. Yet in-spite of all this financial lightening and burdening, there we were queuing to have our picture taken with him as if he were a rock star. Those who know him well will tell you that he is a man of towering integrity. They will tell you that he is a South African of unbridled passion and commitment to the complete freedom of our people and the realisation of the full potential of our country. They will also tell you that he is fiendishly bright.But these values – great as they are – do not make a national treasure. Ironically that title is bestowed only on the humble great. Pravin Gordhan is fast becoming one of our humble great and his last (we all hope it is not his last, but alas) budget presentation proved this. It was not the maths of the speech that solidified his place in our history. In fact, many people will be gnashing their teeth at the fact that we are paying vastly more for vastly less. It was these words:
“Fellow South Africans, if we make the right choices and do the right things we will achieve a just and fair society, founded on human dignity and equality. We will indeed transform our economy and country so that we all live in dignity, peace and well-being,”
If you did not know that I was quoting our newest national treasure (and you had never heard/heard of Jacob Zuma), you might say that I was quoting a/our President; these words have a presidential feel.
But he didn’t stop at general appeals for participation. He went on to issue a clarion call for us to participate with him in the task at hand: “This is the time for activists, workers, businesspersons, the clergy, professionals and citizens at large to actively engage in shaping the transformation agenda and ensuring that we do have a just and equitable society. Obstacles there will be many. Overcome them. Detractors abound. Disprove them. Negativity inspired by greed and selfishness will obstruct us. Defeat the bearers of this toxic ethic. South Africans, wherever you are own this process; defend your gains; demand accountability. Be an active agent for change. Umanyano Ngamandla (Unity is power.)”
These words coming from our very own “broken man presiding over a broken society” would be laughable. But coming from a national treasure they have the effect of creating hope; presenting a vision and outlining a strategy to get there.
If we allow them to, these words could galvanise us into action; to pay our taxes yes, but then to pay attention to what we as individual South Africans could do to take back our power. He is inviting us to join him in fighting for a future – one that he seems to be positive about; he is inviting us to stop pointing out what is wrong – we all know what is wrong; stop whining whilst Rome is burning. He has modelled the way for us (another enduring feature of people who wear the title of National Treasure). All we need do is act.
In the immediate term, this must include an uncompromising commitment to our non-negotiable values. Punch drunk from the ongoing battering of the forces of corruption and greed, we must stand firm and not give into the temptation of; “they are doing it so why can’t I?”. This statement – this attitude – is, I believe, the single biggest danger currently facing us as a society. It will take discipline to resist this temptation but if we don’t, our demise will be fast and frightening.
In the meantime, Pravin Gordhan will need all the support he can get as the vultures’ circle. So, if you bump into him on a flight or anywhere else, have a selfie with a national treasure and thank him.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. All my writing – regardless of topic – is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole. I do this to help keep their stories alive.