Well-meaning handouts won't prevent disasters

If we do not find out-of-the box solutions to providing jobs and housing for all, we will continue to have disasters, writes Ryland Fisher.

One of the biggest problems in South Africa is that we have too many people who are dependent on the state or the goodwill of others.

This is one of the results of how our society was structured for more than 350 years, first under colonialism and then under apartheid.

If you design society in a way that the majority of people do not have access to decent jobs, housing, education and other basic human rights, then you will always have a problem, especially when you try to change things in an attempt to make these rights available to all.

I have never been one to blame all the ills of our society on apartheid, and to do this becomes more and more difficult the longer we are a democracy - this year we are celebrating 23 years since we voted in democratic elections for the first time on April 27, 1994.

However, it is difficult not to still see the effects of apartheid and colonialism throughout our country.

The events of this week, where we had major fires destroying parts of a huge informal settlement in Hout Bay and we ran the danger of not being able to pay out social grants at the beginning of next month, should prompt us to ask some questions about the nature of our society and how we can change things for the better.

Having been in the media industry for more than 35 years, I find some level of predictability when major disasters hit Cape Town, or anywhere else in South Africa for that matter.

There is shock that something like this could have happened, even though it probably happens once a year. There is sadness at the loss of life or property. Then there is a huge, and commendable, public effort to help those in need.

The sceptic in me wonders about some people who only do good when disaster strikes others. I can’t help thinking: Do they do good at other times as well, or do they wait for disasters to happen so they can appease their conscience by giving away old clothes and blankets and maybe a few cans of food?

I’m not saying this is not necessary (although new clothes and blankets would probably be more appreciated) but I believe far more is needed.

I am glad that, finally, it appears as if the city, province and national government are seeking permanent solutions to prevent major fires causing as much damage as occurred at Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay. The question remains: Why has it taken so long?

The same question can be asked about the social grants crisis that can potentially cause more harm, and to millions more people, than any fire could.

The Constitutional Court grappled with this question this week and, if the learned judges were pulling out their hair, imagine what mere mortals like us thought about what is going on.

The court has resolved the issue. But this is not enough.

There is a need to look at why so many people need social grants and how we can stop them depending on government handouts.

It is not enough to say that young girls should not fall pregnant, or young men should find work. In an economy that is not growing, it will always be difficult to find work - because it just does not exist.

The only way to increase employment is by growing the economy.

There have previously been calls for an economic Codesa, where some of the most powerful brains in the country can join politicians in finding ways to grow our economy so that everyone can benefit.

The government needs to realise they need the help of people in business and civil society.

Ultimately, whether we live in Bishopscourt or Bishop Lavis, we all want the same thing. We want to have decent jobs, be able to put bread on the tables of our families; we want our children to have the best possible education; we want decent health care, and we want to live in a crime-free environment. In short, we want decent human rights.

As we mark Human Rights Day on Tuesday, we need to think about out-of-the-box ways of achieving this for everyone in South Africa.

If we do not do this, we will continue to have disasters - possibly even bigger ones than what we have experienced - and we will continue having to put plasters on the problems in society.

We do not need plasters any more. We need major surgery. And the government does not have the skills or the willpower to do it. All of us, who care about this country, need to think about ways to contribute in a meaningful way, beyond giving food and blankets.

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