Rights of poor remain low on SA's political agenda

Life is full of uncomfortable truths and the way you respond to them can make you stronger, or they can traumatise you for a long time.

One of the uncomfortable truths that I and many others have had to deal with over the past few years is that the ANC, the organisation which many of us would have been prepared to give our lives for just over 20 years ago, is no longer the same movement we supported almost blindly.

It has lost its values such as non-racism and non-sexism, and now mainly serves to prop up a leadership that does not deserve the support we provided when we voted it into power. It has become a party which many people support because of the perception they could benefit from economic opportunities and not because it fights for the vulnerable in society.

Another uncomfortable truth I have had to deal with is that poor people do not really matter to those with political power, irrespective of the political party. Most politicians use poor people as voting fodder at election times, but quickly forget about the promises they made to secure votes.

Most politicians are middle class and have middle-class interests, so they struggle to identify with the plight of the poor. Many politicians from poor backgrounds end up committing “class suicide” once they earn high salaries as public servants and move from the townships to the suburbs.

I have always thought it would be difficult for black people to turn their backs on other black people. We share too much history and, no matter where we find ourselves in life, we can never forget where we come from. Most black people have relatives who are poor and are reminded of their roots, even if they do not want to be reminded. It is for this reason I assumed black people would always help other black people, especially those who are poor.

But I was wrong. I have realised class is probably a much more important common denominator in South Africa. Middle-class people tend to stick together despite their race, even if some blacks who find themselves in the middle class are often made to feel unwelcome. If the struggle of middle-class blacks is about identity and acceptance, and access to opportunities, the struggle of poor blacks is about survival in a situation where one might not have a home or a job.

It is easy, when you are middle class, to forget about the needs of poor people and only worry about your own situation.

It is another one of those uncomfortable truths that the gap between rich and poor in South Africa has grown tremendously since we became a democracy. Yes, it is true we now have many black millionaires and even a few black billionaires, but that does not excuse the fact that most South Africans remain economically excluded.

It is true that black people did not struggle to be poor, but we also did not struggle for some to become stinking rich while most people remain poor. We struggled to uplift the most vulnerable in our society, something which has not happened in a significant way since 1994.

This disdain for poor people can be seen in the evidence delivered at the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings where we heard that 143 people died after more than 1 700 patients were removed from health care facilities by the Gauteng government and moved into the care of mainly ill-equipped non-governmental organisations. The people who were removed were poor, and their families are poor, which could possibly explain the contempt with which the Gauteng government treated them.

The disdain for poor people can also be seen in the way poor people’s bodies have been transported for pauper’s burials in Gauteng, something which was only exposed when an open trailer carrying 42 bodies lost a wheel this week and corpses were exposed in the road.

These are two high-profile events which have received coverage in the newspapers, but most of the incidents where poor lives don’t matter do not receive media coverage.

Most of the people who live on the Cape Flats are poor and the response to their plight - whether it is when they become victims of crime or whether they want decent housing - is another indication of how poor people do not matter in South Africa today.

It is sad that their plight is only highlighted when another young child is killed in the crossfire of gang violence. Yet, many people on the Cape Flats live under horrific conditions every day.

It is sad that there can be even a perception that the successive governments we voted for to replace the apartheid government continued to treat many poor people with the same disrespect as the apartheid government.

The sad reality is that this will not change if one political party is replaced by another. It will only change when poor people realise the power of unity - especially when it comes to voting - and demand their rights be placed higher on the political agenda. Otherwise, the status quo of deepening poverty and inequality will be with us forever.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 18 November 2017)