Friday, August 12, 2011

The woes of the Eastern Cape...again

THE Eastern Cape is a national disaster. This was the revelation from a joint research report by the Human Sciences Research Council, Department of Social Development and the Africa Strategic Research Corporation (with the ironic title, “The People Matter”). Along with many other people, the only response I could muster was, “ke ngoku?” (and then what?), because this is not much of a revelation, but another report to confirm what anyone in a taxi could have said.

In an effort to guard cynicism or sounding jaded, I listened to the news, and read discussions and summaries of the report. The response by the social development MEC on national radio, stunned me. His consistent response suggested the report was going to help form a strategy that would address the emerging issues. Seventeen years after democracy, and government is still trying to find a strategy to address the province’s challenges; an issue that is “not new”! How is this report different from previous research, in that it will galvanise government into action, which has been lacking since the advent of democracy?

The province’s colonial history, as well as the two Bantustans that existed during apartheid were used as the contextual backdrop for the report. After centuries of oppression and conflicts, it seems the province has a long journey ahead in trying to eradicate structural and (dare I say) psychological poverty. The discourse used in the report, in contextualising the status quo of the province (in relation to SA), could be mirrored against the discourse used to describe Africa in relation to the world; which results in a hopeless blame game of the colonial history, the West’s exploitation of Africa’s resources, and questionable leadership. I make this comparison deliberately because the constant referral to history has been cautioned, as it often absolves us of responsibility for present actions. Is it enough to use history as a justification for the current problems we see daily in the EC?

In reading further sections of the report, my eyes were drawn to the recurring words and phrases relevant to women: “the burden of childrearing falls on older women . . . absent fatherhood . . . women being paid less than men for the same work”. In a province where women are in the demographic majority, poverty is still a gendered narrative where women bear the brunt of social inequalities, often compounded by cultural norms disempowering women further. Gender equity is often a complex issue and the giant white elephant in conservative communities. This is further exacerbated by the discourse about women from prominent SA leaders and the obsession with raising questions of “the advancement of women” during August, in the form of rhetoric and conferences. The quality of life of a poor girl in the EC should make us shudder and wonder about what’s meant by “a better life for all”.

The issue of young people, especially young men, leaving the province for better employment opportunities was also prominent, further highlighting that the province has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country. This speaks to the challenge of the education system, where young people are not equipped to explore other avenues of employment, where entrepreneurship could be a possibility. In spite of boasting four universities with graduates every year, employment opportunities are not being created and graduates from SA are dwindling or disappearing from the province. A friend recently expressed his move to Durban from eQonce as being an issue of capital; he was not able to generate capital to maintain his client base, because of the lack of infrastructural support to maintain a business. This is a travesty, where individuals who are willing to make a contribution by being in the province, and hopefully creating employment for others, find this option impossible.

One of the positive aspects highlighted in the report was the number of people eligible to receive social grants, resulting in the province having the “widest coverage of social assistance in the country”. Whether the number of people receiving the grant is decreasing or increasing is not clear, because this kind of state security is a constitutional right. What is never clear and has been questioned by other writers elsewhere is: though government does guarantee state security in the form of the social welfare grant, why is the right to employment not guaranteed? Where people will be able to judge the state on whether people are getting opportunities for employment instead of relying on what is negatively perceived as a handout (especially where the dominant grant in all districts is the child support grant). Granted, SA is a state in transition, but does this transition allow for employment opportunities, as opposed to more people becoming dependent on the social security system?

It is not my intention to be alarmist, but there can never be enough noise about the flagrant disregard of human rights and the constant loss of dignity for more than 80% of the EC’s people. And we ought to make more noise until we get things right. Men and women need to make a noise addressing the issue of gender inequality. This should not only happen during “Women’s month”, as if this is a minor, auxiliary problem in SA. In spite of the massification of our education system, young people in classrooms need to make a noise about the quality of their education and the implications this has on their present and future livelihoods.

My final response to this report was withdrawing into my imagination and trying to visualise a different reality for the Eastern Cape. It is easy to imagine a prosperous province, but can we equally imagine the active process of achieving that change? Where government has failed, our only recourse is to begin to imagine different leaders in our communities and custodians in public office, and perhaps vote accordingly. Leaders who will not be afraid of making difficult and ethical decisions about where and how state resources should be spent. And once we have imagined the change we need, perhaps we could find other solutions that don’t rely on government rescuing us from our woes, because that has left this province “trapped in structural poverty”.

first appeared in the Daily Dispatch,8 August

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

my imagination

While trying not to “throw the baby out with the bath water” I finally responded to the questions I had about Christianity when I was in my third year. They had always been boiling beneath the surface of the appearance I had put together as the good Christian girl. The first question I managed to voice was “why does God have to be father, a man?”; if gender is a social construct then why does God have a gender and being subjected to our petty obsessions about what it means to be a man or a woman? If, as God’s subjects/minions, we could project our issues onto “him” then clearly “he” wasn’t such a great God.

A friend attempted to give an answer that I was not convinced with hence the torrent of questions continued focusing on the Christian family and religion. I decided I wouldn’t run into the arms of any other religion or worldview and I attempted to let go of church and see what image of God I would be left with(I recently discovered Julia Sweeney who helped me laugh at this). Initially I was plagued by the obvious guilt of not having men in cloaks and dresses telling me how to live my life. I also discovered I didn’t need to feign super-spirituality that often involved miracles and healing with people laughing or falling on the floor or bouncing off walls, giddy with the Holy Spirit as I had witnessed in some charismatic churches.

Instead I decided to withdraw and start with the basics: why did I need God in the first place? Could I not handle doubt and the anxieties of being in an ever changing world that I needed a crutch to convince me that everything was going to be alright? And what to make of church? Was it really spiritual family or another sub-culture trying to make sense of the world and convincing people of hope amidst the pretence of changing the world for better in the name of spite of what history had shown us about the church (we need only look at the confusion in Africa alone)?

I haven’t had many answers, instead I have more questions about how to makes sense of my history and the beliefs I once held onto very strongly. But when I realised God wasn’t going to smite me and guilt was a useless emotion, I decided to play with my imagination instead. So what if God was my imagination because I needed to be grateful for the events and grace I couldn’t make sense of in my life? I recognise that in many of the events that have led to where I am, I made some decisions-simply cause and effect-no booming voice from the sky or burning bush while on my way to school. But sometimes I can’t help wonder where the genius of realising that I have choices came from because I’ve witnessed people living most of their lives believing that life can simply happen to them without their permission (be it in the form of an oppressive government or relationship or conservative community), where they are subjects and perpetually warding off angry spirits they know nothing of.

I then re-discovered and began to trust my imagination that beckoned to me as a child to see how charmed life really is whether or not I accept it. The point isn’t the answers or the reasons to explain the wickedness or heinous crimes I sometimes see either, but to simply accept that, that’s what it is, life. I like spirituality, a personal and private kind where I don’t have to proselytise but be me as much as I can. That’s my first and only commandment: be you. And perhaps my tattoo, luthando eyona nto because I discovered there are few arguments against love.

All I am left with is my imagination...and fortunately, if I have children one day, I won’t have to teach them about imagination, because my nephews have taught me that’s something kids respond to intuitively. I may however have to advise them about protecting that imagination and allowing it to be unlimited in the quest of finding answers for everything.