An Article by Archbishop Njongo Ndungane
The State of the Nation is not just how the economy is doing, or how strong the Rand is. The State of the Nation is about how well the people of South Africa are doing. Are they able to live with dignity, able to feed their children, able to meet their basic needs, able to access employment, education, health care? According to the views expressed during the poverty hearings, the State of the Nation is dire. Communities are crippled by poverty. It is a state of emergency.
I have come to this conclusion after testimonies given by people during the 10th Anniversary National Poverty Hearings held in 9 provinces in South Africa. Below is an excerpt featuring some of the stories shared:
“Since I was born poverty has been following me.” (14 year old girl in Numbi,Limpopo Province)
“My two boys are street children as we speak right now. They are smoking glue and eating from the rubbish bins.” (a mother in North West)
“Dit is sonder gevoel en dit is ongemaklik en veroorsaak die opbreek van families en gesinslewens.” (Poverty is uncomfortable, unsympathetic and unending and it leads to the breakdown of family relationships) (a woman in Uppington)
“Without employment young people end up doing wrong things like selling themselves for food and money, robbing people and afterwards getting illnesses like HIV and AIDS.” (an elderly man in Uppington)
“A hungry stomach knows no law…” ( a young man in Gauteng)
A young woman told us that her parents had died while she was still young, leaving her with siblings to raise. Because she was not a guardian, she could not access benefits from the social security system, therefore their lives were plagued by a daily struggle for survival. It was not unusual for them to go for days without food. Their situation became so desperate, that one day the small children ended up eating cow dung.
Throughout the poverty hearings, community members shared testimonies of their desperate struggle for food, to access social services, take their children to school and guarantee their future. Their struggle is that of basic survival – the struggle to put food on the table, have clean water to drink. While talking to one of the researchers during the poverty hearings, another young woman asked, “Do you know what it is like for a mother to hear her children cry and beg for foo and not be able to feed them?”
In all the nine provinces it is evident that lack of food is a key problem. Lack of food has caused loss of human dignity and the erosion of family and societal values. Ordinary citizens are resorting to desperate measures in order to feed themselves and their children, such as eating from dustbins, begging on the streets. A number of young people narrated how lack of food had driven them to either resorting to prostitution or engaging in criminal activities.
It is surprising to me that in the 21st century, when there is so much wealth, technology and knowledge – there are still people in the world who have to suffer the injustice and indignity that comes from hunger.
The greatest instigator of this desperation is lack of employment, which means people have no income to fend for themselves. Young people – whether school drop outs, matriculants, or those with tertiary education are all saying they cannot find jobs. This means with or without an education, this economy is not producing jobs. What kind of an economy is able to produce wealth for the rich, but no employment for the young people who are the future?
Unemployment among young people is driving them into disillusionment, hopelessness and bitterness. For them, the future remains bleak. A number of them expressed frustration and anger at their inability to access youth funds like Umsobomvu. An angry young man in Cape Town said, “Hunger creates hatred. I see people with money and I want to rob them.” Another one from Kwa-Zulu Natal said, “When there is no food from home, I end up stealing and eating in dustbins”.
The issue of food also featured prominently from people who are infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. While their testimonies indicate that access to treatment has improved significantly, they are often unable to take the ARV treatment because they have no food. ARV treatment demands a good balanced diet. Most of them largely depend on the disability grant for survival. However, they can only receive a grant when their CD4 count drops to less than 200. A number of them have confessed that they would rather not take medication so that they can continue to receive the grant.
There is no doubt that the social grants in South Africa are providing an invaluable safety net against poverty. However, communities are clearly saying that they also want opportunities to fend for themselves, sustain their livelihoods and eventually actualize their dreams. Without the creation of employment opportunities; without increased support to agricultural production by the poor; without increased institutional support to the poor – none of this seems possible.
Poverty is a deadly cocktail that is causing a state of emergency. The words of an elderly woman in Kwa-Zulu Natal are indicative of this; I am saying to the power brokers – death has come knocking – please come help us.” The anger, the frustration and the feeling of hopelessness especially among young people is a recipe for possible disaster. Just as we have experienced in recent times an outbreak of anger and violence through the xenophobic attacks, a stage has been set for another eruption. Enough is enough. South Africa must act now. Most of the policy provisions to cater for the poor are enshrined in the constitution, and reflected in various policies including ASGISA and Vision 2014.
But, words, words, words won’t feed the hungry. It is time for action. It is no time for semantics, who is right and who is wrong. It is time for action that will address the needs of the people of South Africa.
Archsbishop Njongo Ndungane id the President & Founder of African Monitor(www.africanmonitor.org) He was the Chief Commissioner during the 2008 Poverty Hearings. For more information and for further interviews with Archbishop Njongo Ndungane please contact Ms. Buhle Makamanzi on +27 82 898 8488 or +27 21 713 2802