By: Gcobani Qambela*
On a taxi to Johannesburg, passing through Hillbrow, I recently saw a wall painting that caught me off-guard. The writing read: “If a child is hungry today, there’s no point in promising bread for tomorrow”. In the taxi with me were mainly (what I would assume to be) working class people who took the taxi with me from an affluent part Sandton that houses international embassies/consulates, international trade organisations and exclusive hotels. The taxi was heading back to Johannesburg CBD. On this particular day, as the schools had just opened, the taxi drove mainly through the suburbs and not the freeway in an effort to avoid traffic which had started picking up. We drove through the high walls, well maintained lawns, and quiet streets with electric security fences in Houghton where Nelson Mandela lived and had a house.
I was struck by the contrast between the Houghton estates and the situation in which people lived in Hillbrow which is just a few kilometres from Houghton just before town. In Hillbrow there were far more people in the streets, very high rise buildings that seemed sometimes dilapidated, overcrowded and/or ignored. There were kids in different school uniforms by the streets, hawkers, and seemingly poor and homeless people. The pace was much faster in Hillbrown than in Houghton, and almost had a sense of ‘walk fast or move out of the way’ feeling to it. I got off at the last stop at the Noord taxi rank in town and thought about that inscription I saw entering Hilbrow: “If a child is hungry today, there’s no point in promising bread for tomorrow”. I found it particularly striking because the inscription is most evident when coming from Houghton to town. I thought about how Nelson Mandela’s legacy is often tied closely to a concern with children, and yet many South African children are evidently hungry, abused and ignored just a few kilometres from where he lived much of his post-1994 life.
A few months ago I accepted an invite to participate on a panel at the upcoming World Forum on Democracy (WFD), Strasbourg (3-5 November 2014). The theme for this year is “From participation to influence: can youth revitalise democracy?” This theme arises out of a need to look at the ways in which the youth can meaningfully partake in democratic processes and renewal. The forum aims to highlight various avenues of youth participation engagement in decision making so as to “stimulate a dialogue between them in order to create a momentum for a wider take up and structural change towards a democracy where young people will have a say”. The ultimate aim is to “help better identify the challenges to meaningful youth participation, and to recommend action that need to be taken at various levels to strengthen the impact of young people in political decision-making.”
I have been thinking a lot about this WFD theme of moving from participation as young people, particularly in South Africa, and into influence. A few weeks back I gave a short presentation at the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII) on how to monitor the progressive realisation of socio-economic rights in South Africa. Post-1994 South Africa is still hailed as having one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, but this admiration is quickly fading as we more visibly see the devastating effects of having the right political and legal instruments without delivery of the promises of these instruments. As the report on “Monitoring the Progressive Realisation of Socio-Economic Rights in South Africa” notes, “South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world and focusing on economic growth alone is thus not sufficient as it presents no guarantee that the structurally poor and excluded will benefit from GDP [Gross Domestic Product] due to a number of structural drivers that continue to exclude people from so called ‘shared growth’ (p. 3).
In her article “Going for positive change: Government, step up, please”, Simamkele Dlakavu notes in the Daily Maverick how in South Africa the term “active citizenship” has become popular which encourages all South Africans to contribute “to our collective development”. This is indeed important, and as Dlakavu notes “it is also important that it practices some self-reflection. It needs to realise that it too should play its part, in which it has been severely lacking.” Dlakavu notes the lack of transparency and delivery of services to people particularly at rural, township and peri-urban settings. In Kieskammahook in rural Eastern Cape, Dlakavu evokes the case study of the Ntinga Ntaba Kandoda initiative which dispels all myths of the (rural) poor being passive, lazy or entitled, but rather the collective of 13 villages “are building their own community from the ground up, through farming, improving education and educational outcomes for the lived experiences of rural learners…” Dlakavu continues to note how Ntinga Ntaba Kandoda “are using the skills of unemployed young people to become community organisers, to use their talent[s] and skills in art, for instance, to develop themselves and their community.”
Yet, despite the strides and initiative taken by the people of Ntinga Ntaba Kandoda to be ‘active citizens’ the government has not met them halfway by creating an enabling environment for these citizens to continue helping themselves. In a report I compiled with Baxolise Dlali for the African Union’s “Youth Consultation on the 2nd Annual High Level Dialogue on Governance and Democracy in Africa: Trends, Challenges and Prospects” last year we noted similar trends in South Africa. From qualitative interviews with young people in South Africa, we noted that while many young people held positive views about the country, “Others however felt that there were very little avenues for young people to be able to participate in democratic processes in South Africa for the processes were seen as corrupt and that often one had to bribe the officials to have things done or to be able to participate”.
It is clear that many young South Africans are still being promised bread for the future while their hunger today remains ignored. As we head toward the end of the BLF theme on education, I have been thinking a lot about knowledge translation: how do we translate what we know into praxis. In particular in this case, everyone knows about their right to socio-economic rights, but how do we translate this knowledge into tangible results for those whose ‘daily bread’ is still not being delivered? And how do people who are already marginalised hold the state to account when many measures require some form of economic support to be able to hold the state accountable?
 Socio-economic rights are defined as “those rights that give people access to certain basic needs (resources, opportunities and services) necessary for human beings to lead a dignified life. Government, and in certain circumstances, private individuals and bodies, can be held accountable if they do not respect, protect, promote and fulfil these rights” Sibonile Khoza (ed), Socio-Economic Rights in South Africa: A resource book (2nd edition).
*Gcobani Qambela is a regular Bokamoso contributor. Read his short biography and previous articles here.