It is wonderful to be in the Eastern Cape today, and I mean that phrase literally − anyone driving through this province cannot but be struck by a sense of wonder. Those who live here are surrounded by a depth of beauty they should never take for granted. Every time I am in the Eastern Cape I am reminded of the opening passages of Alan Paton's prophetic work, Cry the Beloved Country. “Beyond and behind great hill after great hill”, he wrote, "the grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. It holds the rain and the mist ... feeding the streams in every kloof. It is well tended, and not too many cattle feed upon it; not too many fires burn it, laying bare the soil."
And then comes the foreboding: "Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator. Keep it, guard it, care for it; for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed.”
Prophetic words indeed. As we look around us today, in a province of the beloved country, whose rich, red earth should be capable of feeding our sub-continent, we need to ask: Did we keep it and guard it? Or will Alan Paton’s words prove to be an unheeded forewarning?
This magnificent province, Mpuma Koloni, apart from its natural grandeur, also has a heroic past. Throughout its history, South Africa’s South Eastern Seaboard and its hinterland have exemplified the capacity of people to turn adversity into opportunity. It is this fortitude that we must learn from, and build upon today.
The Eastern Cape frontiers saw the clashes of opposing waves of migration from the North and South, the ravages of conquest, the violence of the Mfecane, and the brutality of colonialism and apartheid. Despite this, and maybe in part because of it, this province nurtured many of our country's greatest sons and daughters; world statesman, Nelson Mandela, as well as great leaders like Robert Sobukwe, Oliver Tambo, the Sisulu and Mbeki families, and many others.
This province was also the educational hub of the sub-continent. Most of our greatest leaders are alumni of Healdtown, or Lovedale College and Fort Hare University. These famous institutions nurtured the intellectual capital that guided our struggle for democracy.
That is why, after centuries of struggle, when liberation came to our country (a day we celebrate on the anniversary of our first democratic election on 27 April), many South Africans looked to the Eastern Cape for guidance in our transition to a sustainable democracy. We knew this would require much more than a founding election. We needed to give life to the world’s most progressive constitution, founded on a Bill of Rights, and championed by the father of our nation, the Eastern Cape’s most famous son, President Nelson Rohlihlahla Mandela. All of this was captured in South Africa’s most famous political slogan that took the form of a promise: A better life for all.
So, what happened?
Since 1994, this province has exemplified the most tragic tale of the new South Africa − the hope of liberation betrayed. Let’s not fool ourselves. Where the Eastern Cape once stood, within living memory, as a beacon of our country’s potential, and a benchmark of achievement, it has slid to the bottom of the pile, on almost every indicator.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga no longer minces her words, not even publicly. She reported to Parliament recently that the problems in the province’s schools were so deeply rooted and so serious that the system had “virtually collapsed”.
I often think about the challenges that face this Minister. She is one of the people who is genuinely trying to reconstruct this province’s education legacy, in part by applying some of the solutions we have developed for the problems of poor quality education in the Western Cape. These interventions include competency tests for teachers and performance contracts for principals, for which we made provision in an amended provincial Education Act last year.
The Minister was determined to follow suit. She went to Bhisho with a stiff backbone. But she lost the battle to the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU). No one can tell me that this tough Minister, who also happens to be the very powerful President of the ANC Women’s League, would have retreated, unless the Union had had powerful backing from above. In the year of Mangaung, when President Zuma knows that the Eastern Cape is still the ANC’s biggest voting bloc, he cannot afford to alienate SADTU. How else can one explain the fact that he failed to back his Education Minister’s first essential steps to resurrect education in this Province so that its children have a future?
The tragic truth is, the President is prepared to sacrifice the children of this province, and condone criminal incompetence, for the votes he needs from SADTU and COSATU, who will be posing as ANC delegates at Mangaung. Nothing illustrates more how much ANC leaders have sunk in comparison with the heroes of the past, than this gut-wrenching situation. What does Ubuntu mean when a country puts the interests and comforts of its adults ahead of the prospects of its children, especially when it is those very adults who are responsible for ensuring those prospects?
While the President may turn a blind eye, the citizens of this province have not. They have long known about the state of emergency in their schools, and like decent parents would do anywhere, they have been voting with their feet. That is why 44% of new registrations tracked in Western Cape schools this year, from Grade 1 to Grade 12, are from the Eastern Cape. And make no mistake about it, we have warmly welcomed these pupils who otherwise would have been tossed onto the smouldering ruins of Eastern Cape education, where pupils still study in some 394 mud schools or under trees, where the department spent only a paltry 28% of its infrastructure budget; where the Department cannot work out how many ghost schools it has, let alone ghost teachers; where learner outcomes are worse than in any other province; and where teachers in the biggest teacher union spent the first six weeks of the new school year on strike.
The horrifying truth is that an average child in the Eastern Cape today is likely to get a worse education than she would in parts of the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo.
In this context, I was absolutely amazed to read a story, buried deep in a Johannesburg newspaper this week, about parents who effectively closed down some 294 Eastern Cape schools by removing their children from them. I can understand why this would apply to dilapidated schools or mud huts. But then I read the most amazing article online, from East London’s Daily Dispatch; it is genuinely one of the most extraordinary articles I have read.
It was the story of the closing of a state-of-the-art, modern school near Qonce, or King William’s Town, after it had stood almost empty for years, in an area where there is a high demand for education. This article should find its way into the famous book of incredible stories called Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Many of the poverty stricken parents had chosen to remove their children from this well-equipped school and were instead paying up to R400 per month to transport their children to other schools.
I quote directly from the Dispatch: “An Eastern Cape rural school that is considered one of the best equipped in the Province has been unoccupied for the past three years. The facility has now been reduced to an eyesore with overgrown grass, and infrastructure that is slowly decaying due to lack of maintenance. Built on the outskirts of Qonce, more than a decade ago, Sakuphumelela Senior Secondary School has turned into a white elephant after parents in Zalarha location chose to send their children elsewhere in search of a better education. The school which was opened to much fanfare by the former education MEC, Shepherd Mayatula, is also sometimes called Nolali Mpetshe, after the Umkhonto WeSizwe veteran of that name. It was subsequently closed down about 3 years ago after pupil numbers dwindled due to poor teaching methods.”
The school boasts the type of facilities of which many people studying in mud schools or pre-fabricated classrooms can only dream.
The article goes on to describe that, apart from the classrooms, the school has an admin block with nine offices, a science lab, toilets, water and electricity, furniture, including desks and chairs and text books, many of which are lying around in some of the classrooms and library. The school received a donation of computers and a printer which were never used. After some of the computers were stolen, the remaining ones were removed.
According to the Dispatch, community activist Victor Moyeni said pupil numbers started to drop in 2009 when parents took their children elsewhere − and here comes the first explanation − after they complained about the teaching staff.
“We asked the department to investigate but district officials who were sent here did nothing to resolve the problems, Moyeni said. Numbers dropped to 30 pupils. In Jan 2009 parents got a letter from the principal to say the school was closed. Parents wanted the school to be re-opened but with new teaching staff. Village secretary, Noselethu Mbishe, said parents were tired of paying R400 to private operators to transport their children to nearby schools, even though they had this well-equipped school nearby. Those who cannot afford it walk long distances of over 10 km to other schools. The DoE spokesman, Loyiso Pulumani, said a decision was made to close the school after numbers decreased over the years with eventually fewer than 10 pupils turning up.”
So here you have a state-of-the-art school, from which parents are removing their children, at great inconvenience and expense, because the teachers are not doing their job, and the Department is powerless to do anything about it. But I reckon it is safe to bet that the school still retained its full staff complement, on full salary and benefits, despite the absence of pupils, because SADTU would have protected their right to keep their jobs. What kind of cloud cuckoo-land are we living in? The only way for the Department to get rid of the teachers was to actually close the school after the parents and pupils had suffered immeasurably for years.
If ever I have heard a story about inverted priorities in education this is it. And it sums up, perfectly, why education in large parts of this province has gone to hell in a hand-basket. It also explains why this province has managed the singular achievement of snatching defeat from the jaws of our democratic victory in 1994.
Since then, there has also been a systematic decline in the province’s agricultural and industrial production.
As I said before, this is our country’s most fertile province, with ideal conditions for farming livestock, maize, tea, and deciduous fruits, among other many crops. It should be South Africa’s pantry.
Yet, thousands of jobs have been lost and agricultural production and incomes have declined steadily over the years mainly due to misguided economic, agriculture and land reform policies. Instead of leading the way in empowering emerging farmers, as we all expected, the Eastern Cape has tragically done the precise opposite.
Despite the transfer of just over 6 million hectares of land, both through restitution and redistribution, since 1994 − a great step in the right direction, one would have thought − there has been little financial or technical support to ensure the success of farming ventures.
The story I have told is a tragedy for the whole of South Africa. No province is an island unto itself. We are one country, seeking to build one nation with one future, and we rise or fall together. Our Constitution is based on the principle of co-operative governance and partnerships. As the saying goes, the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, but a chain can only be as strong as its weakest link. If the bell tolls for the Eastern Cape, it tolls for South Africa.
The National Planning Commission under Minister Trevor Manuel made a cogent point recently, stating that, in order to succeed, our country needs three key things:
- Good leadership at every level;
- a capable state (Minister Manuel is quite right when he says you cannot have a developmental state until you have a capable state); and
- good, clear laws and regulations to which everyone adheres and is held accountable.
If you look at the cause of this province’s underdevelopment over the past 18 years, just analyse it against these three criteria. Weak conflictual leadership, involved at every level in a fight to the death for power, wealth and patronage, rather than for service to the public. An incapacitated state hollowed out by cadre deployment and corruption, and a tangled web of modern and traditional law, arbitrarily applied and more often honoured in the breach than in the observance.
And what Minister Manuel did not say is this: No country that claims to be a democracy will have either good leadership, a capable state, or the rule of just law, unless its politicians are frightened of the voters, who will hold them accountable and vote them out of office if they become self-serving laws unto themselves.
And herein lies the greatest tragedy of the Eastern Cape, and a key reason why it has so fundamentally failed to fulfil its potential.
But things haven’t bottomed out yet, when one considers the Traditional Courts Bill which has started making its way through the parliamentary process, and which will, if passed in its current form, decimate what remains of the Eastern Cape’s prospects.
The Constitution’s provision for the recognition of traditional leaders and customary law, and the acceptance of “courts of traditional leaders”, was a compromise at the CODESA constitutional negotiations to secure the buy-in of traditional chiefs. With Mangaung on the cards, the ANC can no longer duck this issue, if it wants to retain the favour of the traditional chiefs, whose authority holds sway over millions of rural South Africans, including the way they vote.
The Traditional Courts Bill proposes the introduction of traditional courts, presided over by local chiefs or their delegated representatives. They will have the power to interpret the law as they see fit, hear evidence, call witnesses, and hand down judgment. They will effectively be law-maker, policeman, prosecutor, jury and judge at the same time.
And since traditional law is not adequately codified anywhere, an appeal process will be near impossible. In any case, which poverty-stricken rural person, particularly women, convicted under traditional law will have the courage or the means to lodge an appeal, if their future lies at the mercy of the Chief who handed down their sentence? I cannot think that the Bill is constitutional, but if it is passed in its current form, it will condemn millions of people, particularly women, to permanent subjugation in the equivalent of feudal fiefdoms. It will not only decimate their rights, but destroy this province’s prospects of development and progress.
And yet, despite all of this, on Wednesday this week, voters in three by-elections in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro returned the ANC to office with massive majorities. The seats were always going to be safe ANC wards, to be sure. And while we think of the events of the past week, it is worth recalling that the ANC only scraped home with 52% in last year’s municipal elections in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro. But the results in these wards, which gave the ANC majority margins of 90%-plus, unheard of in functional multi-party democracies, sent a clear message to the ruling party that they are safe from accountability to the voters. They don’t have to bother about the voters, even where there has been maladministration, corruption and regression since 1994 on the scale I have described today.
There may be the odd toyi-toyi or even a strike when people express their dissatisfaction. But as COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi noted with surprising candour recently, strikes and toyi-toyi’s don’t change governments. During the anti-toll marches, he expressed his anger that the Government had abandoned e-Tolling in the Western Cape when the DA opposed it, but enforced it in Gauteng, even though COSATU didn’t want it. Vuka Maulele, wake up, Zwelinzima! The Western Cape is not getting e-Tolling because they voted DA and their DA provincial government has rejected the tolling of major commuter routes. Don’t be surprised, when you always vote ANC election after election, that the ANC ignores you.
But most bizarre of all, was the sight of people marching against the government, shouting “Viva ANC Viva”. One wonders what a political satirist like George Orwell might have made of all this. Except this is not a political satire. It is for real.
Columnist Jonny Steinberg came closest to explaining this phenomenon recently when he wrote "even when people protest against the way the ANC runs South Africa, they do not contest its sole right to do so".
Well, if this is so, then it is hard to be optimistic that we can build a workable democracy in South Africa. Because this is as close as damnit, in the modern world, to the concept of the “divine right of kings”. And when one party’s “divine right to rule” seems immutable, no number of press exposés or civil society actions, or NGO interventions, or corporate social responsibility initiatives, will make any significant difference in the headlong march towards a failed state. ANC leaders have regularly said to me they don’t particularly care what appears in the newspapers because their voters are not influenced by them. (But they worry a great deal about what goes down on television, which is why the ANC takes such trouble to ensure that the SABC is controlled by its deployees.)
The point is simply this: If any government knows that people will continue voting for them, whatever they do, those governments effectively have absolute power, and as we all know, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
By the time people wake up and try to use their vote for the purpose it was intended − to hold their leaders accountable by removing them − it is too late. By then, sadly, the people have no-one to blame but themselves. Because, if they are honest with themselves, they will see that they willingly gave away their rights to their oppressors (when their oppressors still wore the disguise of liberators). And when the voters wanted their rights back, it was too late.
Are we doomed to this kind of future? Only the voters can decide. The people of the Eastern Cape must look at the evidence, and ask themselves, do they want to go further down the road of decline, or would they rather change course and lead South Africa to become the kind of country we know we can be?
Many South Africans do not contemplate a change of course because they are in what I describe as an uncomfortable comfort zone. The “better life for all” has been a long time coming, but some believe it will eventually arrive if they are patient and long-suffering and passive enough. They assume that South Africa is the leading country in Africa, and the gateway to our continent. But it’s time we realised that we are being overtaken in almost every sphere, from education, to the green economy and information and communication technologies and even sport, by other countries on this continent. We have, for a while, lagged far behind in terms of economic growth. As commentator Charles Wachira said recently: “South Africa needs to shake off its complacency. Other countries are finding solutions to their own problems and they are prospering.”
This is reflected by progress in Ghana, Rwanda, Botswana, Zambia and Kenya, amongst others.
Why are these countries surging ahead?
I am currently reading a fascinating manuscript of a forthcoming book by international affairs expert, Greg Mills.
In it he says that “much of Africa has experienced two liberations − the first from colonial and/or racist regimes, and the second from the excesses of the liberators themselves.”
By 2012 (this year), he writes, not only were all countries on our continent free from colonialism, but most had also overthrown the autocrats who all too often had followed colonial or racist authoritarian rule.
In some cases the original liberation movements have virtually disappeared, from Ghana, to Nigeria and Zambia. In some countries the parties of liberation hang on to the vestiges of power through coalitions, such as Kenya; or are in opposition, such as Malawi. The lesson is this: Once-powerful parties can be washed away very quickly when the tide turns against them.
We, in South Africa, having suffered the ravages of colonialism and apartheid for so long, have lived under the delusion that if we succeeded in our first liberation struggle, the struggle for universal franchise, the rest would automatically follow. Our Constitution instilled and sustained our hope.
It should do so still. For it provides the space for us to undertake a peaceful second liberation struggle, to free our country from the increasingly oppressive yoke of our former liberators, and to do so by democratic means, through the ballot box. The urgency of this is more clearly apparent in this wonderful province than anywhere else in South Africa. But, because the first liberation struggle is so rooted here, and its power abuse so widely tolerated, it will be also be more difficult to liberate people from its excesses and oppression here than it will be anywhere else.
And this is precisely why I say that this must be the epicentre of the second liberation struggle. Our second struggle must be to defend the values of our Constitution, for the realisation of rights, for redress, for reconciliation, for non-racialism, for responsibility and for accountability.
This struggle must find its roots here, in the fertile soil that nurtured our first liberation struggle, which has been so bitterly abandoned and betrayed over the past 18 years.
It is a struggle that must be led by the Democratic Alliance, the only party that unashamedly and uncompromisingly champions the values and policies that are essential to beat poverty and reduce unemployment. The only party to champion Nelson Mandela’s vision of reconciliation, redress, diversity and delivery. We owe this to him, in the twilight of his life, and in the province of his birth.
The by-elections of the past week showed us that there is no easy walk to freedom. But we know this already because we have come a very long way since we were a 1,7% party in 1994. We have already learnt that the only way to set out on a long journey is to put one foot in front of the other, and to keep on doing so hour by hour, day by day, week by week, month by month and year by year, until we have reached our destination: one, united and prosperous South Africa in which each person has the opportunity and the means to live a life they value.
That is our Holy Grail. And the DA is South Africa’s best, (indeed I believe the only) hope of achieving it. We will be South Africa’s inextinguishable flame of hope.
Let us go out from here and keep the flame burning, from generation to generation in our beloved South Africa. Let us lead the second liberation struggle.
I thank you.