File picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso/African News Agency (ANA)
File picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso/African News Agency (ANA)

Billboards and poor politicking: What should be prioritised instead

By Bharti Patel and Nicole Breen Time of article published Jan 25, 2019

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On the 15th of January 2019, a billboard was erected hailing a political party as killers. 

To illustrate  their point, they listed names of those shot dead in the Marikana Massacre, of children who died in  pit toilets and also the victims of the Life Esidimeni tragedy, in which 144 mental health care users  lost their lives. 

The aim of this was, purportedly, to demonstrate how the political party against  whom the billboard was erected was a culpable organisation and a catalyst for these deaths. 

But this  has since been called grandstanding and exploitation of tragic events and of the people who died as  a result of them. Indeed, it is undoubtedly no accident that the billboard was erected in an election  year. 

Unsurprisingly, the erection of this structure was a source of great anger to many and the  billboard was vandalised soon after it was put up. 

Those who committed the act have been  identified as family members of individuals who died in the Life Esidimeni tragedy.

The questions thus arise as to whether political parties should be using these tragedies and human  rights violations to score votes if not, what they ought to be doing instead? 

Pointing fingers is part of  the parlance of politicians. It is a means through which votes are won. 

Dramatic and eye-catching  statements make a party seem attractive to people because they create the impression that the  party making the statement will improve the lot of those in need and solve the problems of the  country. 

Using the names of the victims of the Life Esidimeni tragedy for this purpose is however  rather manipulative and conniving and unacceptable in a democratic society. 

On the flip-side, the  commemoration of the lives of people who met a sad, unwarranted and needless end is a form of  the payment of homage to these individuals. 

Roads, airports, parks, institutions of learning and  many other public spaces bear the names of fallen heroes. 

If the aim of such acts was to use these  tragic events as a means of showing that these lives did not end in vain and that it intends taking up  the cudgels and holding those responsible to account, then they should be applauded. 

But what a  strange coincidence that they sought that applause when the vote count is at stake. 

The South  African Federation for Mental Health welcome the efforts and political will to make mental health a  priority for all in South Africa (if indeed this was the intention).

Since 2015 questions were raised in the Gauteng legislature about the deaths of mental health care  users when they were moved from long stay hospitals into ill resourced NGOs and various costly  investigations and commissions were held which revealed the poor state of mental health not only  in Gauteng but in all provinces. 

Three years later very little progress has been made to improve  mental health services. 

Licensed and legally operating NGOs continue their struggle to raise funds to  provide dignified care to the vulnerable as state subsidies have not yet been adequately adjusted to  ensure that vulnerable and impoverished communities receive the care they deserve. 

There is no  proper monitoring and data capturing system to prevent further tragedies. Government  departments continue to work in silos despite the call for mulita-sectoral collaboration in addressing  mental health care services.

Instead of proper and meaningful engagement with stakeholders, parties draw communities into  political campaigns. 

Accusations and lists are ineffectual and mean nothing if not accompanied by  the provision of a constructive way forward. 

We need to know whether there is political will,  specifically how they would serve vulnerable individuals such as mental health care users. 

This is an  important consideration because now that the gaps in policy and practical service delivery have  been exposed, the time has come to cohesively and comprehensively close all of these gaps. 

That  should be the forefront of the agenda - not further finger-pointing and climbing onto high horses. 

We  therefore call upon all political parties to put forward in their manifestos details as to how mental  health will be propelled to the forefront of the agenda and how action items will be carried out to  ensure that mental health care users receive the services they require.

It is at this juncture that it becomes extremely important for constituents to decide what they want.

Voters need to begin to set the agenda and demand change and demand that political parties come  up with propositions to facilitate the changes that are needed. 

They should not listen to bald  statements from politicians decrying the actions of another and affixing labels to them; they should  rather ask the political parties for answers. 

To demonise a specific group is not constructive and  constituents should not be fooled by attempts to do so. 

Billboards should seek to root out the rotten  apples by saying what the party erecting it wants to do. 

Constituents must recognise the need to  cast their vote through applying their minds to the policy choices their representatives want to make  and should challenge political parties to give them what they want in terms of their constitutional  rights.

Election years are a time of jockeying for position and parties will fight to gain traction in whatever  way they can. This muddies the waters and can often lead to a positive message getting lost. 

There is  nothing wrong with raising awareness of the plight of the victims of tragedies, but there is a problem  with simply being problem-oriented and casting aspersions on another. 

We call upon politicians to  take cognisance of the need to add value and to spark debate- not simply to climb on their soap-  boxes.

* Bharti Patel and Nicole Breen are with the South African Federation for Mental Health

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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