The twin scourge of promise and legacy
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Suggesting that only older people need help in redressing the problems created by apartheid is wrong, says Eusebius McKaiser.
Minister of Human Settlements Lindiwe Sisulu thinks that if you’re under 40 years of age, you’re not affected by apartheid’s consequences. Don’t be lazy, then, and expect a free house. Housing from the state is strictly intended to “right the wrongs of the past”, and therefore under forties should be excluded.
This is a shocking argument, and although it has generated discussion, the minister deserves further engagement on the multiple ways in which her viewpoint is ahistorical, and even unconstitutional.
Minister Sisulu went on to say (addressing anyone under 40): “None of you are ever going to get a house free from me while I live.” What incredible arrogance, based on a poor understanding of history’s reach into our democracy, and a poor understanding of the government’s constitutional duties.
First, let’s engage the most compelling defence of the minister that some have offered on her clumsy behalf. Some argue that, actually, the minister has a point when you take into account the fact that the state necessarily has limited resources to provide housing, and so must prioritise older people, and only young people with special needs like those from child-headed households.
This is justified, so the argument goes, because young people are too entitled, and at any rate have a lifetime of opportunity ahead of them still, if only they used their energy to get ahead in life rather than waiting for the state to give them everything they need.
Is this defence of Sisulu fair, and convincing?
Not really, for the simple reason that the various ANC governments of the past 20 years are mostly responsible for any culture of entitlement that South Africans have become addicted to. So the state doesn’t have the moral authority to lecture any lazy or demotivated or entitled citizens. Instead, the state should take the biggest slice of the blame for engendering this culture of expectation.
This, of course, doesn’t mean it is false to say many under forties are wrongly waiting for the government to do everything for them. But who makes that argument matters. If you are responsible, in large part, for my entitlement attitude, then it’s not clear to me that you should be the first to tell me, in the name of newly discovered tough love, that I should now pull myself together.
This message would be far less controversial, divisive and worthy of scorn had the minister – or even better the president – delivered a major speech first in which they apologised for the state consistently raising false expectations among citizens over the past 20 years that they would deliver a better life for all.
The very use of phrases like “service delivery” and the size of our welfare budget engendered a culture of expectation. A confession that it was wrong, unrealistic and not sustainable would be a good start from the state.
If the state were to take responsibility for this culture, and took citizens into its confidence about what, realistically, it can do to help citizens, and what it can’t do, then the tough-love message would resonate with many more than was the case when Sisulu shouted from the rooftops recently.
However, even if the minister did have the moral authority to tell young people where to get off, the tough-love viewpoint isn’t entirely convincing. It is premised on the false belief that the past does not affect someone under the age of 40. That is ahistorical and based on patently false beliefs about the nature of apartheid
It is a viewpoint I’d expect from AfriForum, determined to pretend that in 1994 we all started on an equal footing and with a blank slate.
That is not historical reality. Apartheid didn’t just affect my grandparents and my parents. It has affected me too, and materially so, although I am only 35, as a result of being born into a family that was affected by the evil of apartheid.
If, in 1979, I was born into a white family, for example, the statistical and empirical truth is that I would have a much better chance of being a professional, educated and employed 35-year-old in 2014 than if I had been born in a shack.
That is because the intergenerational consequences of poverty, and state-sponsored anti-black racism, have far-reaching structural consequences that cannot be wiped out in one or two generations. Some of us born in 1979 did, of course, escape our cycle of poverty in poor black townships. But we were lucky, beating the odds, and know the face of structural poverty when we go home. It still exists.
Sisulu ought to know better, and yes particularly so as a black South African coming from a family that was deeply steeped in the fight against the structural impact of apartheid.
Perhaps what her comments highlight are two uncomfortable truths about democratic South Africa: politicians who have always been, or have become, privileged (regardless of skin colour) suffer from convenient amnesia about the structural nature of apartheid and exclusion; second, if the state runs out of excuses for poor delivery, it could try to shift the conversation away from its track record towards citizen attitudes. Yet, if we are honest, very few South Africans under 40 would demand houses from the state if they had been given adequate opportunities from the state to excel and become self-sufficient.
So unless the state wants to also argue it never had a political and constitutional duty to progressively realise the rights of citizens to education, healthcare and housing, then it must be embarrassed that many citizens who are under 40 actually don’t desire to be dependent on the state. They simply don’t have opportunities to become educated, and many who are don’t have opportunities to find work as a result of the low economic growth we’re experiencing, and barriers to becoming entrepreneurs such as a risk-averse banking sector not about to give a loan to asset-less Eusebius.
How can Sisulu be so oblivious to her government’s role over the past 20 years in not generating enough opportunities for young people to escape the consequences of the past? It is baffling. But maybe not, if you take into account that acknowledging this narrative is the equivalent of admitting that you’ve been less awesome in the driving seat of state power than you often proclaim.
Sadly for the minister, while she can choose to be politically arrogant, she cannot ignore the constitution. The constitution doesn’t say every citizen must get a house. But it does say the state has a duty, within its available resources, to realise the right to housing, progressively. As with Aids drugs, it would have to show that the state has rational grounds for not providing housing, within its budgetary constraints, for all citizens that need it, and not just over forties.
The constitution doesn’t distinguish between under forties and over forties. I would love to see the minister try to convert that viewpoint into a successful constitutional argument for discriminating against citizens younger than 40.
Must we stop being reliant on the state as young South Africans? Absolutely. But then the state, in turn, must stop making empty promises that worsen a sense of entitlement among young people.
Better still, jack up the education system, reduce barriers to entrepreneurship and make the economic climate exciting enough for local business to invest more in the local economy, while also attracting further foreign investment. I bet my left kidney that fewer under forties would demand housing if the state performed better than it currently does.
* Eusebius McKaiser is the best-selling author of A Bantu In My Bathroom and Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma. He is currently working on his third book, Searching For Sello Duiker.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Independent Media.