The Moodley Family
The Leadership of the Umtapo Centre
Representatives of the UKZN
Ladies and Gentlemen
It is an enormous honour for me to give this talk in memory of Strini Moodley. Strini was not just an ordinay fellow. He was unique. He was many things and various talents in one package.
I first set eyes on him in the early seventies at the University of Zululand, where I was a student and he was a cast member in the Theatre Company of Natal, performing, on that first occasion, the drama, Antigone. Tall, thin and with a flowing hairstyle, you would have been forgiven for mistaking him for a pop star.
It was only with interactions later that I was exposed to his profound intellectual prowess, his gift with words, his sharp tongue, his tenacious revolutionary commitment and an unconditional love for this country and its people. There are very few of us in the Black Consciousness Movement who worked with him who would have escaped his often brutal tongue. He loved life and enjoyed a good party, laughter and companionship.
For his unwavering quest for freedom, he endured detentions, banning orders and time on Robben Island, where he found me well into my own term of imprisonment. In a sense, I taught him a bit about prison life, but with him generally ungovernable, that was not an easy task.
So, Strini was all these attributes and more, rolled into his persona. That’s why he is not easy to forget.
This occasion takes place just sixteen days after our nation had gone to the polls for the fifth time to elect a new administration, an event which provides us with an excellent opportunity to ponder our achievements and failures; our blessings and curses. It is as good a point as any, to assess the quality of our collective work and experiences – an exercise that accords with the passions that drove Strini’s life.
On the positive side, we can be proud that at the political level, we succeeded, through heroic struggles, to overthrow the yoke of racist oppression and put in its place a democratic order where our people are able to elect their rulers. This is one of the factors that must be present in the lives of all free peoples throughout the world.
We may be proud that we have in place credible institutions of state that are able to serve our citizens with integrity and distinction. The IEC is one such an institution. Running elections is a mammoth task that requires hard work, skill, honesty and integrity. There are many countries in the world who admire our achievements so far in this regard.
We may be proud of the fact that, from our loins, we have produced formidable individuals, such as Thuli Mandosela, who, through her occupancy of the office of Public Protector, has shined a bright light on the shenanigans in public life that rob citizens, especially the poor and vulnerable, of their deserved services.
We may be proud of the fact that, despite perceived attempts to degrade the quality of the judiciary, we still have a credible one to preside over the judiciable issues of our citizens. The proof of that is the frequency with which many in our midst approach the courts to have their issues or disputes adjudicated.
We should be proud of the fact that we still have a vibrant civil society and media through which societal issues can be ventilated. Not all countries in the world are so blessed.
But the deficits are enormous, wide, deep and painful. They point to the incomplete work for freedom, equity and justice that we still need to attend to.
At a fundamental level, the constitution of our land is big on individual rights, but completely devoid of economic content. Settler-colonialists did not pussyfoot around, mouthing nice words and phrases about individual rights. They cut to the chase in a brutal manner. At the point of the gun, they dispossessed us of our land, denied us access to our vast mineral wealth and excluded us from the mainstream of the economy. Over several centuries of a sustained campaign of dispossession and naked exploitation, the black majority was thoroughly impoverished, a condition that remains to this day.
The constitution says nothing about this, let alone providing for a redress mechanism. The result is a society pretending to be just, when in fact it is frozen in the dispossession of the past. The nice-sounding individual rights in the constitution cannot fix this. Neither can free and fair elections or the hard work of Thuli Madonsela. As some have observed again and again, democracy has only removed the scaffolding that was used to erect the edifice of poverty and inequality, but the edifice itself remains standing, strong and unshaken.
Is it not ironic that under our democratic dispensation, we have become the most unequal society in the entire world with a Gini Coefficient of about 0, 67? Is there any wonder our people are in the streets everyday toyi-toying against their deprivations in the midst of plenty? The fact that 15 million of us receive social grants should keep all of us awake at night. Humane as it might be, having 30% of our population unable to look after themselves and depending on hand-outs for their subsistence is as alarming as it is dangerous.
What is more, the inequalities remain entrenched more or less along the racial divides of the past. The rich of yesterday are the rich of today and the poor of yesterday are the poor of today. This is unsustainable and is almost certain to lead to social explosions in the near future.
After twenty years of democracy we have failed to create an inclusive society where most of our citizens could have a sense of belonging. We are not moving at all in the direction of an egalitarian society that some of us had dreamt of during the days of the struggle for liberation.
Some of the elements of such an inclusive society would be a fairer income distribution across the nation; a fairer ownership and control of the economy of the country; a fair, credible and equitable provision of services such as public education, health facilities, security of the person and property in a state the citizens can trust. But we are moving in the opposite direction to this.
One of the biggest problems is that the black petit bourgeoisie, which led the masses of the people in the struggle for freedom, now presides over the state in a predatory manner. Our public representatives in all three spheres of government, civil servants and managers of state owned enterprises are almost all from this class. Instead of using the state to serve the people, especially as an agent to attack the legacy of oppression, this class uses the state to accumulate wealth and move up the social ladder. Either through outright theft of public money or through the now notorious tender system, this class is on a looting spree of state resources. The citizens can only watch as their money is stolen and then flaunted in shameless and obscene conspicuous consumption.
This class has so degraded the capacity, ability and orientation of the state to deliver services that those who have the means have turned their backs on the public sector. They use private security companies to protect themselves and their properties, private health care when they are sick, and either former Model C or private schools for the education of their children. The working class and the peasants, who cannot afford these services offered by the private sector, are at the receiving end of substandard services. For the rich, the state is almost irrelevant, except as a source of direct or indirect income. This phenomenon aggravates the distance between the people and their erstwhile leaders.
It is particularly tragic that we are unable to provide quality public education to all our children. And there is no excuse for this. Hendrik Verwoerd is long dead. We are in charge of the fiscus. We allocate a more than decent percentage of our national budget to education. The ministers of education, their counterparts in the provinces and most officials in the education department are black. And yet public education is a mess, not in terms of the curriculum and per capita expenditure, but in terms of performance and outcomes. Most of our children cannot read, write and calculate at a level corresponding to their age and grade. This has prompted some commentators to conclude that the quality of education offered to black children under democracy is inferior to the one provided by the apartheid state.
Now, that hurts big time. Hurting as it might be, the truth is that if you are born in the townships and villages across the length and breadth of our country, and of working class or peasant parents, you are unlikely to receive quality education.
And yet education is one of the most potent weapons available to take people out of poverty. While social grants freeze people in their state of poverty and powerlessness, education gives people knowledge, skills and possibilities, not only to escape poverty, but a decent chance to thrive and find their true potential.
The beauty with education is that its benefits are intergenerational. The children and grandchildren of an educated parent are also likely to be educated. Thus, empowering the children of the poor to get out of poverty gives future generations a huge leg-up.
With a functioning public education system, you are likely to have children of the middle classes attending the same schools as those of the poor. The common socialization that comes with this is priceless. It would contribute towards the sharing of values, perspectives and conception of the future. This can only be a boon towards the building of a more cohesive and inclusive society. In that event, the building of one nation and a people’s democracy becomes an easier proposition.
A dysfunctional public education system, in addition to stunting the personal development of our young, robs the country of the ability and capacity to produce the skills required to grow the economy, create employment and reduce poverty. It reproduces and perpetuates poverty, unemployment and inequality.
Quality education would help in the building of a modern and competitive economy, one that can hold its own among other nations of the world. With a good education system, we would be able to produce the engineers, artisans, scientists, accountants and managers who would give our economy the desired capacity to modernize and grow. We would be able to produce good journalists, doctors, lawyers, priests, social workers, actors and many other professionals who every society needs for its balance, functioning, roundedness and soundness. We would produce future generations who would be able to pay taxes, build their own houses and pay for services, as opposed to those who would be trapped in the prison of so-called delivery.
Incidentally, I have heard and read many times over, that some of our professions are complaining, not only about the scarcity of new entrants into their professions, but also about the poor quality of new graduates. Media houses moan about newly qualified journalists who cannot write or talk; lawyers who cannot write a proper letter and engineers who cannot do engineering. All these are an indictment on the performance of our public education system. I heard on radio the other day some official from the police service decrying the poor quality of their latest recruits, especially in their mathematics and language competencies.
But why can’t black people, in particular, teach their own children? Part of the problem is a continuing lack of self-respect, self-worth and perhaps inferiority complex and down right self-hate. How do you feel going to work each day but not applying yourself? Why can’t you take pride in your work? How do you feel about your children, those of your relatives and neighbours running away from you and your school because you are not good enough? How do you feel collecting your salary at the end of the month when you know you have not applied yourself? Where is your self-esteem? Where is your pride? Why do you think it is okay for other teachers elsewhere to be considered better than you when you in fact have the same qualifications?
You cannot do your best for others if you have a poor opinion of yourself and if you think, subliminally and otherwise, that they do not deserve better. Why would you do your best for your learners if you do not think they deserve better? The same applies in other areas of our national life, such as the provision of housing and health care in our public health facilities.
The Black Consciousness Movement identified this malady a long time ago and set out to eradicate it from the psyche of black people. Strini was in the thick of those efforts to eradicate the colonial mentality that has come to characterize this kind of behaviour towards ourselves. As we have pointed out, these problems are not primarily about money, but it is about the way we are wired. If it was about money, our neighbouring countries, with lower GDPs, would be performing worse than us. In fact, they produce better students than us. We desperately need re-wiring. Unfortunately, the BCM has stopped teaching. What a pity!
The spread and intensification of corruption adds another dangerous dimension to our difficulties. It appears, very soon, even the judiciary, the IEC, the Public Protector’s Office, which we might be proud of today, might be corroded by this scourge tomorrow.
We might soon find ourselves in an environment where nothing is as it seems; where educational qualifications cannot be taken at face value; where you cannot assume that a doctor treating you is genuine or not. If the media is to be believed, already we cannot tell if the principals of schools we see have bought their positions for R30 000.00 or not, or whether some of the teachers in our schools got their positions by having sex with union leaders or not. If posts can be sold in this manner, why not certificates?
Free and fair elections and individual rights are very good, and so are all the institutions supporting democracy. But unless we attend to issues of content, of economic inclusion of all our citizens, this nation will unravel, and nobody knows where that will lead to. Can we imagine ourselves sliding towards a failed state such as in Somalia, or a chaotic and murderous one as in Libya or Egypt?
We need an off-ramp soon, so that we do not just hurtle down this highway towards possible social upheaval.