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On Saturday our country mourned the youths who were killed in 1976 and in the following years for rejecting apartheid education and for fighting for our freedom.
Steve Biko, who was killed in 1977, asserted that: “We have set out on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize.”
In democratic SA there is still widespread poverty, and we are described as the most unequal country in the world.
Even in these circumstances, many show great resilience. Among these are the children and their unpaid teachers who, without the protection of school buildings, learn and teach through the bitter winter.
Others, like the late Phillip Tobias, who identified our country as the birthplace of all humanity, use their skill and insight to deepen our understanding of humanity’s inextricably linked evolution and destiny.
We share the same planet. We breathe the same air. We hope our children will be healthy and safe and will fulfil their potential. Yet many children face terrible threats and will not reach adulthood or fulfil their potential.
The Education Department’s statistics reveal that an estimated 2 402 schools in the poorest areas of our country have no water supply and 3 455 have no electricity. Most have no science laboratories, no computer systems and no libraries.
Children in many of these schools still use pit latrines, while almost 1 000 schools have no toilets at all. The government has a duty to the poorest child. It has to solve these problems and ensure that children have safe schools with good textbooks and committed teachers.
Learning is difficult enough for a hungry, malnourished child with no shoes on her feet who walks long distances to school; who has no home or a home that is regularly washed away; who has no access to a toilet or clean running water or electricity; whose parent has died from an Aids-related illness and who is responsible for younger brothers and sisters.
Many children have parents who are unemployed. Those who are the “working poor” are employed far from home and return too late to be involved in their children’s schooling.
Meagre wages stretch to cover transport and rising food costs to feed old, young and sick dependents. Poverty is the biggest violation of constitutional rights. It forces human beings to live in conditions that strip away dignity.
Poverty drives vulnerability to discrimination on the grounds explicitly prohibited in our constitution such as race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, age or disability.
The rural woman whose sexual orientation is different from society’s “norm” often faces discrimination and violence. Expedience often pits the rights of those who are poor against each other, resulting in unsustainable, short-term trade-offs.
The commission’s work on the human rights of specific groups of people (such as refugees or children) or on specific rights (such as education or sanitation) is located in the interdependence, equality and indivisibility of all rights. Many of the obstacles to the realisation of rights lie in the lack of co-ordination within the government – among different spheres, departments and policies.
It motivated the commission’s approach to the complaints against a DA-led municipality in the Western Cape and an ANC-led municipality in the Free State, both of which built unenclosed toilets.
The commission ruled that both municipalities had to enclose the toilets. It also asked for accountability from the Presidency for the entire country. This year the Presidency’s department of performance, monitoring and evaluation reported to the commission that 16 million of SA’s poorest people still have no access to sanitation.
The department convened relevant government departments to produce this report. Their collaboration must continue to produce integrated plans. The commission’s provincial hearings on the right to water and sanitation begins soon. Communities from poor areas and their organisations will share their experience of what is happening in local municipalities.
They will interrogate the department’s report and the government’s plans to solve the problem.
The government should listen closely. It cannot replicate the error of no meaningful public engagement illustrated by unenclosed toilets.
The law compels municipalities to put business contracts for services on their websites, yet even wealthy municipalities do not comply.
It is in the nexus between business and government that corruption develops.
UN statistics show that only 10 percent of all water is used for personal and household purposes.
Households have to pay for water usage. Despite businesses being the biggest users, what they pay for water use and pollution (through acid mine drainage, for example) is not publicly accounted for.
All the statistics show that the lives of those who are black, poor and live in apartheid’s former homelands and informal settlements remain severely disadvantaged.
In apartheid’s heyday, racial spending was almost 10 times more for educating the “white” child than the “African” child.
The “white” child was educated to become a master of the economy while the “African” child was educated into subservience on farms, mines and in homes.
Wealth was accumulated in a militarised state in which the threat of unemployment in poverty-stricken homelands kept labour dirt-cheap.
Our integration into the global economy has further deepened this inequality.
From capitalist America to communist China, there is little protection for women and children working for corporations in sweatshops and “free” economic zones.
It is time to connect all the dots. There are many people of vision, wisdom, commitment and goodwill – in our country and across our world. Together it is possible to create a world that recognises the value and worth – the inherent dignity – of every human being.
l Pregs Govender is the deputy chairwoman of the SA Human Rights Commission