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