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Dream of true freedom lies smouldering in the grave


Dream of true freedom lies smouldering in the grave

INSIGHT – Nomboniso Gasa

“THE democratic genie has been let out of the bottle” pronounced Neil Coleman, of Cosatu in the heady days after the election of President Jacob Zuma and his government.

It was a government described as open, accessible, people friendly and pro-poor.

Coleman is not only a decent man. He is also a man of principle.

There was no rancour, populism or triumphalism in his words. His was a deep yearning to see our democracy maturing.

So what has happened to the democratic genie?

Today, images and messages are everywhere, they give us a glimpse of what lies ahead. Slowly and systematically our hard won freedom is being limited. The stranglehold is political, economic and geographic.

In Makhaza township in the Western Cape, the DA gave the poor its Hobson’s Choice – open toilets or continues the bucket system. “The choice is yours.”

This of course, was not about a provincial government that was willing to explore options with the citizens in the light of financial constraints. No, it was an open and direct display of contempt for the poor.

The DA is not alone in its contempt for the poor. In Bizana, Eastern Cape, people were forcibly removed from the “squalor” in which they lived, their shacks mowed down in an action reminiscent of the apartheid era. Yet some of the hands and brains behind the bulldozers this time were those of comrades with whom some of the community had once shared battle trenches.

For some, these were their sons and daughters, metaphorically and literally.

These shacks probably took a long time to put together. Squalid as they seemed, they were the only homes the people of this community had. The people were given no alternative accommodation as the law requires.

Municipal councils flout the very laws they are supposed to uphold and enforce. They do so unabashed because they know crimes against the poor are crimes for which they will not be held accountable or risk losing their jobs. Why should they?

The minister of human settlement, in a fit of populism, knocked on someone’s door and spent a night there, while the owner went to sleep with the neighbours. She hoped this unwanted intrusion was a small price to pay for the change that would be brought once the minister had “experienced” sleeping in the shack.

Well, things did not turn out that way. As soon as the cameras stopped clicking and ink of journalists had dried, Tokyo Sexwale promptly forgot about the tourist experience in the shack. It was only when people claimed their agency and began to protest and reminded the one- time, one-night visitor of their existence that the minister went back.

He partly remembered his word.

This is an era of short term mass appeal – camera, lights and action.

Even the President took time to help someone settle in a better home. We saw him unpacking the refrigerator, lounge suite, microwave and all, including, I hope electric vouchers.

The government with a human heart was in full swing.

Now, the other day, Sexwale described informal settlements as ugly eyesores and this was not for the first time. People live there wena, we muttered accusingly at the television screens, shaking our heads with embarrassment.

Why do people live in these conditions, we asked angrily pointing at the screen.

Look at what has become of this democratic genie.

Now, if the promise of the President to the National House of Traditional Leaders is realised, by December 2010 South Africa will have a dual legal system. The areas that were formally marked as “homelands” on the map before 1994 will be rezoned as “traditional communities”.

The Traditional Courts Bill is no Mickey Mouse law. We are Africans, are we not? In the name of restoring our cultural dignity and honouring the wise ways of our forebears, “traditional” leaders will decide on economic development and even hear criminal cases and disputes and much more. For the subjects in traditional communities, the magistrates’ courts will not be courts of first instance.

Reading the draft Traditional Courts Bill the question arises, why should people in these communities vote in the forthcoming local government elections? The municipal and local government system has nothing to do with these communities. There leadership and governance are predetermined. So, what will they be voting for?

Everywhere, we see images of a troubled land and its people. The dream lies smouldering in the grave, says the poet.

The gap between grandiloquent statements, cameo appearances amid the drama of poor people’s lives and the real lived experiences of a world shrunken by poverty and the indifference of the powerful is becoming wider by day.

Freedom will only have any real meaning if citizens claim it for themselves. This requires careful and deliberate building of a promised nation. Freedom is earned every day. Only then, shall we find that democratic genie which we will have to continually protect.

Nomboniso Gasa is a researcher, writer and columnist on gender, politics and cultural issues