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Early in his retirement years, former president Nelson Mandela used to make special appeals to companies for the building of schools. It was a campaign he started while he was still in office.
One of his famous quotes is: “No child in Africa, and in fact anywhere in the world, should be denied education.” To him, educating all our children was and remains an important priority. I have no doubt in my mind that if age were on his side, he would still be out there fundraising for the building of child-friendly schools.
When protesters burn down schools, I ask myself how far or close they are to the values Mandela stood for. What would be his attitude towards those who destroy the only infrastructure that, more than anything else, gives the African child the real possibility to improve his/her life?
Two weeks ago, we learned through the media that 15 school computers,two classes and a staffroom were burnt during a service delivery protest in Bona-Bona village in Morokweng, North West.
The question arises: why do people destroy the very facilities that are meant to help them?
When protesters destroy schools (and this largely happens in our predominantly disadvantaged areas), can these people who practise this, be regarded as truly committed to the cause of the black child?
This Bona-Bona incident is not the first of its kind in the country. Almost every service delivery protest is now accompanied by the destruction of public property. Has an audit ever been done on the value of these destroyed properties and the cost to the affected communities and the country in general?
People have the right to protest. It is a right Mandela and his contemporaries fought for. What they did not fight for is the self-destructive and nihilistic tendency that accompanies service delivery protests. It is my contention that the destruction of public property by anyone is not viewed seriously enough in our country.
How many people do we know who have faced the full might of the law for destroying public property?
Legislators and our courts cannot remain mute spectators when public property is being destroyed and vandalised. Every citizen has a right over such property and it cannot be destroyed simply because one person or a group is aggrieved.
To the extent that this is a law and order issue, there may be a need for our authorities to amend legislation that deals with the prevention of the destruction of public property.
This is what India did last year when it saw increasing incidents of destruction of public property.
The state government amended the relevant legislation and said it would even consider constituting a special court to deal with such cases. The amendments contained provisions that make the leaders of the organisations who call for protest guilty in the event that public property is destroyed.
When a person is now convicted under that country’s amended Prevention of Destruction of Public Property Act, the court can, in addition to imposing the sentence of imprisonment, order the accused to pay for the damages.
The bail conditions of a person accused of such a crime are also stringent. This may all sound draconian but you need draconian laws to deal with draconian behaviour.
I am aware that this will only address part of the problem. There are many underlying issues to the destruction of public property during service delivery protests.
Some communities feel it is the only way they can get the attention of government. This may be because the space for people to express their concerns and complaints has been narrowed if not shut down. SA needs to go back to active community platforms and meetings so that there is constant communication and engagement between residents and local community leaders.
Without such, people feel the only way their issues can be resolved is if they burn down a school or barricade the roads.
There are instances where service delivery is compromised by corruption and incompetence. The government must be decisive in dealing with such cases and report back to communities. When citizens feel that the corrupt and incompetent are allowed to get away with it, they will revolt.
But there must also be an appreciation by citizens of resource constraints. I was recently part of a meeting hosted by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and received a good lecture from Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan on the country’s budgeting process and allocation of resources. One of our delegates made the point to the government that it would help a great deal if such information was regularly communicated to the public.
A parent who does not tell his children about the family’s true financial state of affairs will always be burdened with unrealistic expectations. So it is important that the government communicates information that will make citizens appreciate the government’s efforts on service delivery.
Also, we have not delved deep enough into the murky waters of service delivery protests. I suspect the despair and monumental eclipse of hope in some parts of our country have a lot to do with this behaviour. Faced with depressing unemployment, crushing poverty, inequality and the increasing disregard for human life, the disregard for public property can only be a natural consequence.
We need comprehensive solutions to the above-mentioned challenges and are called upon to ward off this nihilistic tendency threatening to destroy our common infrastructure. Government and civic society must work together in addressing this challenge. We need to adopt the spirit of Nelson Mandela in putting our country first .
As we close Mandela month celebrations, let us reflect on the values he stood for and refrain from doing things he would not have approved of – such as burning down schools.