Friday, April 9, 2010

I am the Poor...

"I am the poor..." says Julius Malema, the African National Congress Youth League leader in a recent interview with 3rd Degree on ETV. From the interview it is clear that this  charismatic leader defines himself clearly in terms of association and solidarity with the plight of the poor and his own background as the child of a domestic worker.  

And Malema's loyal followers understand exactly where he is coming from, as he articulates the boiling frustration of (mostly unemployed) youth in South African poverty-stricken townships.  As a development agency with an ear to the ground, we have seen the growing resentment. In 2004 , during the Mbeki-era Uthango conducted a six-month enterprise programme in Khayelitsha in Cape Town (with its 500 000 odd people, a very young population  and 75% under the age of 35 with more than 55% living in poverty) and had various socio-economic discussions with 'comrades' attending the sessions. Frustrated young men and women said they cannot stand the fact that they still live without employment and skills in the same 'shacks' that their parents erected to create a 'better life' for them all when when they arrived in Cape Town.

Township Art by Mogano
And the 'young lions' blamed the government for not moving fast enough... for not transforming society and business to provide much more access for blacks to economic powers. Our entire team sensed an urgency and a human 'time bomb' in the air that day and we facilitated discussion on ways to overcome challenges of poverty  and exclusion via enterprise and dialogue. It was not enough... and we realised then already that the system and the leaders need to change along with individual young people that battle for their fragile future on the streets of Khayelitsha. Government. Business. Education. All of it would need a compass towards mutual respect for diversity and creation of equal opportunity.

Political freedom of 1994 did not translate into economic freedom to date - despite the Black Economic Empowerment policies by the South African government. Why not? For me, here is the issue: How can any person, business or any ethnic group transform without a substantial change of heart? I am not talking about a change of policy or environment, nor a change of political or corporate leadership, but a true deepened sense of understanding, and a new  united dedication towards nation-wide transformation which seeks respect for all people irrespective of race, background or views.  Many South Africans  on both sides of the spectrum did not have such change of heart prior to the 1994 democratic elections, but instead, were swept away by circumstances and manoeuvred into a new democracy by their leaders. Deep transforming dialogue together with healing and forgiveness was not facilitated, nor did South Africans truly co-design the future. There was a bloodless exchange and negotiation of power between leaders and followers had to trust the political process. Fears, ignorance and high expectations for the future were suspended in a "wait-and-see" form at grass roots, and everyone waited... and too few actively worked towards the ideal. Too few stories told. Too few people working and living together with too few new skills transferred and gained.

Today is the funeral of the late Eugene TerreBlanche, described in the international media as a 'white supremacist' and leader of the 'Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging' (AWB). He was murdered on his farm earlier this week and it sparked racial tension across the globe (actually). "We are here to avenge his death and to get our country back," said one AWB member who didn't want to be named. "It's been stolen from us; we built it with our blood and it was taken away and given to them for free." (via I look at the khaki-clad followers speaking my native language and I cannot associate with any of them in any possible way. I listen to the frustrated youth of Khayelitsha and I cannot distance myself far enough from their justification of violence to achieve a political aim. The past week, the intolerance of two groups has surfaced in the public arena when an AWB leader exploded on national television and threatened the co-attendee:

In a similar (and equally unacceptable fashion), Julius Malema, showed his own lack of respect for the BBC reporter yesterday - after the ANC Youth League visit to Zimbabwe:

Both the above incidence have since been strongly criticised by the ANC, as shared in this tweet (and many others) by young South African Gideon Monaise: K2metz ANC condemns Malema's behaviour

In Twitter today, I follow various tags and meme's, such as the latest #DearJulius  or simply 'Malema' or '#TerreBlanche' 'related to the politics of South Africa. We work in a politically charged environment, and even though our organisation is a-political and a-religious, we allow debate and interaction. It is important to stay abreast of the most important latest socio-political trends. The two most interesting phrases I have heard the past few weeks were this one: "We are not racist, we are nationalists," (Visagie of AWB, on the right) and then "I am not a communist, but a progressive nationalist" (Malema of ANCYL, on the left). Did anyone else pick up on this? Both describing themselves as nationalists. What do we make of this? Possibly, that the "nation" is important. If so, which nation? All of us, or some of us...?

And then there was the remark by an Afrikaans-speaking man in a quick interview (forgot his name now), where he said, I am a 'more moderate racist than those people at the AWB'. There is no such thing! Either you are, or you are not. There is no middle road here.

Words are interesting: If I work with the poor, associate with the poor and live to make the environment of the poor less harsh, and I am the granddaughter of the poor working class - a mechanic that walked to school for 5 miles a day - can I also say (like Malema): "I am the Poor". Or if I believe in the nation and building it, do I say I am a nationalist? Progressive or Conservative?

Incidentally, I believe that words are futile without the actions. I may be a revolutionary at heart, but if I am not one in action - I am empty. Similarly, I can advocate for justice and building a nation in the vision of Mr.Nelson Mandela, and fight for equal human rights and dignity, but if I do not practice peace when the inter-racial heat is turned on after a brutal murder by a person of one race on another (regardless of reason), I am a fool. This is a simple individual call for courageous and honest leadership and less pretence that all is well in the South of Africa in the face of the world (and a Soccer World Cup 2010).

2010 could be our moment - again - and maybe not because we build sports' stadiums and host another world class event, but because we filled it with people RICH in understanding and mutual respect... So we can all say: I am NOT the Poor, I am Rich in understanding with a heart for all suffering from injustice of any kind: Be it a farmer murdered by disgruntled farm workers, or a young woman for being a lesbian in a township, or an activist loosing his life to fight for freedom.

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