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When President Jacob Zuma was delivering the Dr Alfred Batini Xuma Memorial Lecture last week at the Joburg City Hall, he alluded to the fact that the late ANC president had supported the idea of the state paying grants to poor families in black communities.
This is totally understandable because Dr Xuma was born in 1893 and died in 1962, an era in which black oppression and subjugation was at its peak and the majority of people lived in dire poverty.
This is the period where black people were totally disenfranchised and not allowed to access institutions of higher learning, nor given the space to be entrepreneurs or business people.
These were difficult times, times in which the migrant-labour system, forced removals, the Group Areas Act and all the oppressive laws promulgated by the apartheid regime were actively enforced. Evictions, displacements and loss of land among black people were some of the dire consequences of apartheid.
Rural communities that relied on tilling the soil were unable to do so because they were forcibly removed from their land and the masses were going hungry. Those who were wealthy because they had cattle, were forced to get rid of them because of the taxes imposed on each animal by Bantustan leaders. Those who tried to escape poverty did so by migrating to big cities and joining the gold mines as contract workers.
However, life in the big cities had its own challenges. Families were still going to bed on empty stomachs because of slave wages. Apartheid laws were very stringent in that black people who lived in townships were forbidden to undertake any formal business or entrepreneurial venture to augment their incomes. Those who were brave sold booze and dagga illegally to put food on the table.
When it was clear that families were starving and getting diseases, depriving big business of cheap labour, all kinds of feeding schemes had to be put into place to help black people in the urban areas deal with poverty.
In some schools there was what was called Malebese – a feeding scheme where pupils would queue for free bread, milk and in some instances even cheese.
Families that were lucky enough to contract TB and were malnourished, also qualified for free weekly food hampers at local TB clinics. I say lucky enough to have TB, because some of us were so poor and when we watched those families getting food hampers, we wished we had them too. Clearly those interventions weren’t enough, leaving many destitute.
It is against this background that Dr Xuma made a call for support grants to poor black families as a way to alleviate poverty and disease, I believe. The government of the day did not have our interests at heart and had no intention of considering our needs when it was creating its growth and development plans for the future.
However, 50 years after the death of Dr Xuma and 18 years after our rights to access institutions of higher learning, to own land, to be entrepreneurs and to acquire skills were restored, we have the leader of our democracy still advocating for grants to be paid to poor people as a means of survival and a solution to hunger and poverty.
And when Zuma said this in his speech to honour Dr Xuma’s vision for our country, that government was now paying grants to about 15 million people – there was a round of applause all around.
What this implies is that in terms of our government’s vision for our country, grants are the way to go in line with the ANC’s long-held vision as espoused by Dr Xuma – that the solution to the poverty problems is state subsidies.
Personally, I expected better from our current leadership when it comes to poverty alleviation, growth and development for our country.
Is it too much to hope to hear a clear and confident plan to create sustainable growth that will ensure that millions of people are weaned off grants because they can get jobs and support themselves?
There isn’t a will to breed entrepreneurs and foster the spirit of “can do” and pride in our citizenry as more and more people demand grants, free housing, water and electricity.
It breaks my heart to see foreign migrants working in restaurants, supermarkets, in fact almost everywhere, when our young South Africans are nowhere to be seen.
Initially, I used to begrudge the Zimbabweans who are doing menial jobs in our country their jobs, and wondered what was going on in the labour market, and if Cosatu leader Zwelinzima Vavi was blind to the goings-on because he hardly raises a concern about the influx of migrants, especially in the informal sector.
The trends in the rest of the world, including on the African continent itself, is to allow foreigners to work only in specialist fields where there are no locals to fill such positions. But here in sunny South Africa, even the car guards are foreigners.
Initially, the blame fell on greedy employers who refuse to part with the minimum wage – for choosing Zimbabweans over our fellow unemployed citizens.
That is, until I got first-hand experience of what happens when one goes out to find a gardener, a domestic worker or even a painter in the townships.
I am loath to say this, but many South Africans hate hard work – that’s all. Almost all of locally employed unskilled labourers without exception, won’t pitch up at work one Monday after pay day or after one of the many long weekends that we enjoy.
I have asked many people I come across, and they all complain about the same thing. Most locals, despite the fact that they have no skills, are not interested in working hard. In SA, the dominant culture is that we don’t work for peanuts and we don’t do hard work because sinamalungelo ethu (we’ve got rights); there is even a song to that effect.
Try getting a helper in Soweto and you will know what I mean. Many people sit in the sun and listen to music and gossip while beer flows. There is always money for booze and cigarettes, because local women have found hard-working foreigners as partners to finance their easy lifestyles.
The trend is to get him to move in with your family, and then he takes care of everything and everybody. The grant also plays a big part in making our poor people complacent.
Whereas a Zimbabwean will need money to pay rent, buy food and send home, an unemployed young South African will probably be staying at home and receiving a grant or two for her one or two children. So she won’t really be hard up for work. Even if she doesn’t pitch at times, she is not facing the prospect of losing accommodation or going hungry.
Of course there are many examples of hard-working South Africans, but look around and ask questions – then you will get answers. There are people who go hungry every day and those that have been saved by a grant.
But the point is, even those who can make small money by doing a job or a chore here and there – and thus help lighten the burden on the state coffers – won’t, just because easy money is available.
Is it too much to ask for a leader that will ensure that our children go to school and get a decent education that will equip them to become entrepreneurs, doctors, nurses, musicians, artists, scientists and all the great things a human being can achieve, given the opportunity?
Dishing out grants won’t turn us into great people like Dr Xuma was.