Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
26 May 2010

Not the South of France

Several years ago I attended a conference where a French academic delivered a paper on the etiquette of soliciting anonymous sex in public toilets in the South of France. I listened in amazement as the academic gave a rather erudite and learned presentation (relying on the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault), in which he argued that there were very strict but unwritten rules to be adhered to when engaging in such a noble pursuit.

Little did I realize then that one day I, too, would have to write about toilets.

However, the toilets I have to write about are not situated in the South of France, but in the Makhaza area of Khayelitsha. The DA city council had erected these toilets almost three years ago but, so they claim, they could only afford either to build one walled toilet for every 5 households or to provide each household with a toilet without the walls. When it came to light that the DA had built these toilets without walls, the city councils got a big fright because it suddenly realized how callous this looked and arranged for the toilets to be partitioned off.

The ANC Youth League in the Western Cape understood that the bare toilets were a potent symbol of neglect and even racism and could be used to mobilize voters, so its members tore down the partitions, leaving the poor residents exposed again. Asked what right they had to destroy structures when residents had agreed that the city should fix its mess, Ward 95 Development Forum leader Andile Lile said a community meeting on Sunday had decided to reject the enclosures. “We’ve been given a mandate by the community to fight against this,” he said.

Pressed about the fact that residents had signed an agreement and had a right to choose, Lile said: “I believe in majority rule. It must be a principle position for all of us here and not for individuals. The majority does not want this and we cannot accommodate individuals who betray us.”

“We are going to destroy everything and make the city ungovernable,” ANCYL Dullah Omar regional secretary Loyiso Nkohle said on Tuesday in response to the toilet saga. “We are calling on all youth to do this [vandalise the city], especially those living in informal settlements.”

To me this disgusting saga can be viewed as a metaphor for so much that is wrong with our politics and our society.

First, the DA city council has a lot to answer for. A city that spends millions of Rands every year on trimming the hedges and raking and gathering the leaves in the streets of leafy white suburbs (not to mention the billions spent on the World Cup Stadium and the park next to it) and then claims it has no money to provide poor black residents with one of the most basic and relatively cheap amenities required to live a life with even a semblance of human dignity, is not a city that cares about all its citizens.

It is not as if the city had to choose between building proper toilets and keeping the water purification system going, the streets free of pot holes and the street lights working. Cape Town is not Johannesburg: the streetlights work, the roads are well maintained and, at least where the tourists go, it is relatively clean. It had enough money for all these things and to provide the residents of rich suburbs with extra services they really do not need. I used to live in a quiet cul-de-sac in Sea Point and spent some Saturday mornings raking the leaves on the pavement before the house and depositing it in black bags. Many other residents did not do so as they waited for the city council workers to come and rake their leaves for them, the lazy sods.

How can one morally justify this kind of skewed spending priorities? Surely, the city has better things to spend its money on (like building proper toilets for poor residents) than doing something I can do myself rather easily? If its officials had really thought long and hard about its priorities and had taken the needs of the residents of Khayelitsha at least as seriously as the needs of the rich voters in the suburbs, it would not have wasted their money like this.

Officials and city council politicians will probably claim that they have always provided this service and that white residents expect their pavements to be cleaned up, but that would only expose the callousness of their position. In the past the white suburbs received better services than the suburbs where black people live because white people were thought of as fully human while black people were only, at best, viewed as second class citizens deserving second class services.

A city council that really cared for all its inhabitants equally would have thought long and hard about its priorities, would have ignored the spending patterns of the past and the complaints of some spoilt rich folks and would have prioritized properly so that everyone could be provided with at least the basic services that would help all citizens to live a life of some dignity and respect.

Not that the lot of the Youth League are any better. How callous can one be? Destroying the very partitions that would have given the long suffering residents a semblance of dignity – and all for short term party political gain –  is about as despicable an act as one can get. And then to justify this action by invoking democracy is just plain scary.

Majority rule does not mean one has the right to destroy other people’s property. It does not mean one can tell others whether to accept the belated corrective measures from the city council or not. The Youth League members are really saying that as an individual living in Khayelitsha one has no rights as far as they are concerned. If the Youth League or those aligned to it decides you will jump, then you jump and you will sing viva majority rule and wave your ANC flag while you do so. This is not democracy. It is tyranny and fascism.

How can we build a society in which people will begin to take responsibility for their actions – a vibrant democratic society in which people can become active citizens who can stand up for themselves – if scared and disempowered residents are terrorized by lawless and semi-literate thugs who believe the interests of the party they belong to or are associated with should trump the interests of the people that the party pretends to serve?

This is an all-round depressing and rather upsetting turn of events. It almost makes one yearn for the South of France.

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