Zwelinzima Vavi 2004

Democracy has by-passed the poor

Written: by Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU);
This is the full version of the article which appeared in an edited form in the Sowetan newspaper on 13 January 2004.

Like all other workers who ‘go home’ during the festive season, I too visited my family of five brothers and seven sisters in my dusty, poverty and drought stricken township called Sada.

Sada is about 33 kilometres of Queenstown. It was created in the late 1960s for use as a dumping ground for farm workers forcibly removed from the farms and for some political activists who were banished into this area following their release from prison in the wake of the great repression post the Sharpeville massacre.

The township called Sada was built on land used for ploughing and grazing by the local villagers. When my family settled in 1970, sand dunes used to grow high like the great deserts of Africa. Failure to plant enough trees, as part of what should have been a development strategy, has led to strong, cold winds destroying the few greens that you could find.

In the run-up to then Ciskei ‘independence’, it was ‘incorporated’ into this Bantustan around 1979. It was completely ignored by the then white racist government, and hated and ignored by the Ciskei authorities. Unfortunately the new government has not prioritised the area. Today it stands as perhaps the most underdeveloped residential area in the country.

For all my working life I have gone back to this township every holiday, and for family or friends’ funerals. Every time I have come back to Sada, I feel the folks’ pain, disappointments and frustrations at the slow progress to make them feel part of the new order.

Like all other times, when I come back, word quickly spread out that I am in town. If I am popular amongst workers you can imagine that I am even better known where I grew up. Soon, the folks stream to my brother’s house where I always stay.

Ordinary folk do not always appreciate the difference between COSATU, ANC, government or SACP. They believe that it’s one and the same thing. So they come to narrate their frustrations and pain, hoping that this high profile fellow who knows their suffering can help. They range from those working in small corner shops, to workers working in other parts of South Africa, including neighbouring states, to struggling small businesspersons and those who have been trying their luck to farm in the formerly white farms.

Unemployment has always been extremely high in the area. Before 1994, there were about five clothing factories in the township owned by the Chinese. They used to exploit workers almost freely, encouraged by the Ciskei Bantustan leaders. In fact my first experience of organising workers into trade unions started with these workers who I helped to recruit into SAAWU at the end of 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, whilst I was still a high school COSAS activist.

The dawn of democracy saw these investors closing these factories and packing their bags for the next cheap labour zone elsewhere in the world. These factories however provided some income to the mainly women workers. Regrettably those factories have not been replaced. They are now standing empty, reminding those who once worked of the ‘good old memories’ as the folks normally narrate.

During the time of the bantustans there was a scheme where the folks were allocated plots to plough, plant vegetables to feed their families and sell the surplus. This too collapsed, with the Bantustan leaving those who derived an income from this activity facing grinding poverty, like those they used to sell their products to. The small businesses that promised so much in the past ground to a halt. With the closure of the factories, the scheme stood no chance.

Sada is one of the few remaining small-to-medium sized African residential areas still using the hated bucket and unhygienic latrine system. The sight of those removing the buckets during the festive season is rare. In the previous years, the folks were forced to dig holes in their gardens to bury their waste. One of the most important things you cannot afford to forget to buy is a Doom and Fastkill. Flies move freely between the open bucket and the houses. The whole area is smelly. Sight of kids with running stomachs being followed by hungry and starving dogs is the order of the day. My own son Aphelele could not escape diarrhoea.

Development has not been coming in the direction of Sada. Only recently has a single street been upgraded and tarred. But even this street is so constructed that it is a risk driving there.

The other example is smaller-than-matchbox houses build near Dongwe, just outside our town, called Whittlesea. I have not been in those houses, but folks relate stories of them being just the four walls and a toilet inside without a door.

The plan was to get the folks to build their own rooms and fit a door for the toilet. With the extremely high levels of poverty, very few can afford to fit the door. So they have to use an old sheet or a cloth as the door. The stories of humiliation of the fathers and daughters-in-law in these toilets brings both pain and laughter.

There are broadly two main forms of income — the government’s old age pension and other social grants and remittances from workers from all over the country. There are few government workers such as teachers, nurses and local government workers.

Even the local government workers face a bleak future. I met an old friend who told me that he has been moved from the “municipality to local government and then to provincial government and then back to municipality”. Clearly this whole transformation process has left my friend a little behind.

The story behind this, however, is that more workers inherited from the previous Bantustan were soon to receive retrenchment packages and join those living without any hope.

Every time I stood outside in the scorching sun I watched the folks (young and old) pushing wheelbarrows carrying drums full of a cheap beer I have not heard of anywhere else, called Varantyontyo and Jikeleza. It is a known fact that unemployment, poverty and desperation lead to the abuse of alcohol. The other brother of these conditions is petty crime. A neighbour had us in stitches laughing at a story of a teacher who returned to her house to a terrible odour of socks and shoes under her bed, only to find a man holding a knife.

Whilst overall they remain hopeful, increasingly they are becoming pessimistic. They love the ANC and they know no other organisation, even though they occasionally blame individual leaders of the ANC for ignoring their plight. The more pessimistic and conservative fellows occasionally drop the unpopular phrase “kwakungcono kwalaSebe ngoba kwakulinywa, sasingalambi kangaka” — even though they would back off when engaged on this line of thinking.

An extreme drought has worsened extremely high levels of unemployment and poverty. During this holidays, as I always do, I drove to see my other family in Hanover. On the way I saw the full destruction caused by drought.

Overgrazing due to the land starvation is a huge problem. The folks’ livestock dangerously roams the roads, with the fences removed, presumably by the folk to fence their own gardens against the destruction of the goats and cows. In the three days I was in Hanover and on my way back to Sada, with temperatures up to 40 degrees, I counted two cows dead between Tarkastad and Queenstown.

There is a belief amongst the folks that Sada was cursed. So they blame this for their neglect under the apartheid system and their total neglect by the Sebe sons and Brigadier Oupa Gqozo. Now they blame the same curse for being neglected by the democratic government. How could people be subjected to this humiliation ten years after their freedom?

Before I left for Johannesburg to join the celebration of the ANC’s 92nd anniversary and the launch of the 2004 elections campaign I felt that I must share this personal experience to highlight the plight of all those facing the wrath of poverty and deprivation, completely marginalised by the capitalist economy.

In fact I feel that my stance as a person, and that of COSATU, to use every opportunity to highlight the plight of the millions of our people facing the worst forms of poverty and humiliation, has been vindicated. For those who wonder why I am too radical for their liking, the reason lies in these conditions I have to face every time I go home. I know these are conditions of the majority of our people.

The Sada story is not isolated. There may be no bucket system or this and that specific problem in other townships and black residential areas, but there is a common dominator — poverty and high unemployment.