Last week Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu visited the families of the Phoenix Massacre victims. Picture: Tumi Pakkies/African News Agency(ANA)
Last week Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu visited the families of the Phoenix Massacre victims. Picture: Tumi Pakkies/African News Agency(ANA)

Our country cries out for change

By Opinion Time of article published Aug 2, 2021

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DURBAN - OVER the past few weeks, I have been in KwaZulu-Natal several times. I have heard some say “That’s because it’s her duty. She’s deployed there by the ANC”. That is true. I am the NEC member deployed there. But for me, it is about so much more.

KwaZulu-Natal’s communities are in extreme distress. And where our people are in distress, government needs to be present. If government is not present, there is a vacuum and such vacuums are always filled sometimes with fake concern covering nefarious purposes, sometimes with the bombast of extremism, sometimes with violence, to “prove” something is being done about the situation. Or with the voices that confuse kragdadigheid and authority.

Government needs to be present as the embodiment of a responsible, responsive democracy. That is not the presence of empty promises, but the presence of genuine solidarity and compassionate justice.

We do not go there simply to announce more rules, but to stand by people in their hour of need. In such situations as those pertaining now, just being briefed by some official or reading the analyses of someone in the media or listening to the radio or watching television will not do. Neither will virtual instructions over Zoom.

One has to actually be there, to hear from the mouths of the people themselves, what the people are saying and how they are saying it; and to listen to what they are hearing us say, to see what they see and as they see, so that we can assess, discern and make the proper judgments with regard to what is needed and what next steps should be taken.

One has to be on the ground with one’s people. That, to me, is what responsible and responsive democracy means.

Last week Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu visited the families of the Phoenix Massacre victims. Picture: Supplied

That is why I visit communities in distress. I also go because I hope to be immediately helpful. A funeral has to be paid for; food has to be bought – things that cannot wait for a policy or for a Cabinet decision. I go there not to be noticed, but to be of help.

It is one thing to look at those utterly disconcerting images sent around on social media and sympathise. It is quite another to be led around by a grieving mother or father, or to hold a child shaking with shock and fear. To see the devastation with one’s own eyes is to understand better the events that shocked us all so much and they have shocked us not just because of the violence but because they have exposed so much of ourselves and our society.

I have said publicly that the unrest was fuelled by much deeper causes than just the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma. They were fuelled by hunger, poverty and ongoing impoverishment, by disappointment and disillusionment, by unemployment and judicial overreach.

On display was the politics of despair, and it is not as if we did not know. There were voices over many years trying to tell us just that, but those of us entrusted with power by the people were apparently not ready or willing to listen. I have said so because I have come to understand that systems and structures that cause enrichment of the few and ever deeper impoverishment for the many are structures and systems of violence inflicted upon the poor and defenceless.

So if we want to prevent the violence in the streets, we must do everything in our power to change those systems of injustice into systems and structures that produce justice and equity for our people.

Of course it is the task of government to maintain law and order and a government that cannot do that cannot properly protect its people.

Citizens have a right to be protected, and the law, exercised with diligence and equity, should do that. Societies cannot do without that. But I have always believed that an order not built on justice always produces a disjointedness in society that in turn produces disorder. So it is the task of a responsible government to keep those priorities straight. Justice is in government’s purview, but it should also always be in our purpose. So we must be firm on disenabling those systems and structures that cause our people so much pain and suffering, and finally the anger and upheaval that explode in our faces.

Building, enhancing, and protecting those structures of justice in our courts, our law-making and our law-enforcing, our politics and our policies are vitally important.

But this one learns only when one is willing to go to the places where people are hurting, sharing the people’s pain and legitimate expectations – justice is understanding, and discerning who and what matters most; whose voices matter most, whose expectations count most.

That is why I went to KZN. I also went to Phoenix, listening to all sides in the communities there and trying to understand why, what is happening is not only economically disastrous and politically devastating. It is also a deeply tragic rejection, perhaps even a betrayal, of one of the most precious principles that have guided our Struggle from the very beginning, the ideal made into a bedrock of what we were fighting for – a truly non-racial, inclusive democracy.

The acrid smell in KZN is not just of burnt-out warehouses, factories and shacks in informal settlements, where such ruthless retaliation took place for the looting of shops. It is the smell of the ashes of our non-racial ideal, from our earliest articulations of our Struggle to the Freedom Charter to our Constitution.

That is tragic beyond words. It almost causes one to despair, but I do not. I went to KZN not just to see what is happening right now, but what should happen if we are to survive as a democracy and as a people. Not just to see what is lost in economic terms, but what we are losing in human terms, not just in numbers and calculations, but in the incalculable: our belief in Ubuntu, our humanity that is so deeply vested in the humanity of others.

We must not kid ourselves: the dangers here are deep, real, and imminent. There is much work to be done. But I do not despair. KwaZulu-Natal is mentioned almost always in one breath with its histories of political strife and violence, of racial tensions and internecine battles. But I went there and remembered the other KwaZulu-Natal. I remember those voices, other than the voices of mindless anger and racial hatred. I walk where iNkosi Albert Luthuli walked, I go to Amaoti, Inanda and I still hear his voice, calling upon us to make South Africa a home for all. I walk in Phoenix and I hear Mahatma Gandhi pleading with us “Be the change”.

That is why I go. To see what is and what is not yet seen, but can be made real, and to hear the voices of Luthuli and Gandhi echo in the voices of our people there, young an old; to see them rebuilding South Africa as a home for all, and to be the change our country needs now more than ever.

*Lindiwe Sisulu writes in her capacity as an ANC NEC member, the organisation’s chairperson of Social Transformation Sub-Committee.*

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