Cape Town - The Western Cape Network on Disability has written to the Presidency about comments made by Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe referring to mayors as “dwarfs”.
“We elect mayors who are dwarfs and go further to employ dwarfs in the municipalities. Then we ask ourselves why the municipalities are crumbling,” Mantashe said, addressing delegates at the ANC Eastern Cape conference on Saturday.
The Western Cape Network on Disability, with support from its more than 80 organisations within the disability sector, wrote to President Cyril Ramaphosa to condemn the remarks.
Discrimination against people with disabilities is one of the worst social stigmas that society has not been able to overcome, the Western Cape Network on Disability chairperson Anthony Ghillino said in the letter.
The statement had potential to cause unnecessary discrimination against people of short stature, particularly due to Mantashe’s position as a minister.
Ghillino said: “It is unfortunate that we still have statements like this from a Cabinet minister that goes deep and to the core of dividing a society based on their diversity. Persons of short stature, to whom the minister’s statement referred to as ‘dwarfs’ are included in the definition of disability, which is aptly described as an evolving concept and that it results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinder the full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”
The network called on Mantashe to provide a public apology to the disability sector, particularly people of short stature, and called on Ramaphosa to ensure sensitivity training and commitment to changing attitudes regarding such topics for all staff in government departments.
Western Cape Association for Persons with Disabilities awareness and sensitisation co-ordinator, Erica du Toit, said statements such as this were evidence of society’s negative view of disability.
“The language is offensive, demeaning and degrading. It is difficult to have a positive self-image when influential people use public platforms and insulting language to make a point. It is exceedingly discriminatory and disrespectful to South Africans with disabilities.”
The Western Cape Network on Disability deputy chairperson Michelle Botha stressed the adage of “words matter”.
“This language feeds into negative stereotypes about what people with disabilities are like, who we can be and what we can do. Using us as a metaphor for incompetence or lack of efficacy can have very real implications for how society thinks about what we are able to achieve. It adds to the barriers that we already face to being included and valued as full citizens,” Botha said.
Chaeli Campaign manager and activist, Chaeli Mycroft, said society and the government needed to be held to a higher standard.
“Disability issues are far too often happening under the radar and it’s crucial to engage, educate and communicate around it; to create more awareness and a deeper understanding of disability.
“For such advocacy to be effective, people need to be open to engage and willing to admit when they’ve done or said something problematic or offensive. When we have open communication like this, we can move forward.”
Mantashe responded to complaints stating that he did not think he needed to explain the context around which the statement made. He explained that the context it was said within was in reference to the ANC structure, and that no one present had any issue with it.
“A dwarf is not a disability. It's not a physical disability. A dwarf is not people and if people are sad (about this), they are equating it to something else.”