Quote of the week

Universal adult suffrage on a common voters roll is one of the foundational values of our entire constitutional order. The achievement of the franchise has historically been important both for the acquisition of the rights of full and effective citizenship by all South Africans regardless of race, and for the accomplishment of an all-embracing nationhood. The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and of personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts. In a country of great disparities of wealth and power it declares that whoever we are, whether rich or poor, exalted or disgraced, we all belong to the same democratic South African nation; that our destinies are intertwined in a single interactive polity.

Justice Albie Sachs
August and Another v Electoral Commission and Others (CCT8/99) [1999] ZACC 3
7 November 2007

Batophele se ma se ….

Yesterday the Constitutional Court heard arguments in the case of Njongi v Member of the Executive Council Department of Welfare Eastern Cape Province. According to news reports the judges were rather upset with the Department of Welfare for spending millions of Rands of taxpayers money to oppose a R5000 claim from a disabled woman whose grant was terminated without notice.

The case is now fought on a technicality – whether the money owed to her was a debt in the ordinary sense and could therefore prescribe like other debts – but it touches on a far broader issue, namely the heartless and callous way in which she was treated by officials of the Eastern Cape Department of Welfare.

Like so many other poor people dependent on social grants in the Eastern Cape, her grant was terminated without any reason and without any notice and when she queried this, the officials used tax payers money to fight the matter despite the fact of clearly being in the wrong. As Judge Zak Jacoob told the lawyers yesterday:

“The attitude of every official involved in this affair has been unjustified from day one. No explanation was given as to why the grant was terminated. Millions of rand were spent defending a case that was indefensible. You are spending huge taxpayers’ money defending a R5000 claim.”

Added Judge Sandile Ngcobo:

“We are left to speculate because no one knows why payments were stopped. It seems to me there is something wrong where government says nothing and uses that silence … as a basis to defend itself. You are using your unlawfulness as a defence.”

Section 195 of the Constitution states that the public service must be governed by the democratic values and principles enshrined in the Constitution, and requires a high standard of professional ethics, efficient and economic use of resources, putting peoples needs first and fostering transparency. The Eastern Cape Department of Welfare has made a mockery of these principles for many years now.

Of course the political head of the Department, the Eastern Cape social development MEC Sam Kwelita, is supposed to take responsibility for this mess. In a fully functioning democracy Mr Kwelita would long have been fired to give effect to the many ringing declarations of President Thabo Mbeki about the need to put people first (Batophele) and the need to eradicate inefficiency and corruption from the system.

But of course, Mr. Mbeki needs the support of people like Mr. Kwelita at the upcoming Limpopo conference, so he will be allowed to sit there and make more absurdly callous decisions like this one, and in a year or two we will have another case in which the government spends millions to oppose the payment of R5000 to a poor disabled woman on a technicality when the woman should in fact be entitled to the money.

We can argue that this is an aberration – after all, once the ANC President is elected the normal rules can apply again – but the problem is that there are no normal rules. There will always be another person whose loyalty is needed and another official whose support must be bought, which means officials and politicians who feel nothing for the poor people they are supposed to serve (and if you believe that the ANC is the vanguard of the national democratic revolution, to lead) will get away with the most callous and heartless actions.

This will only end when such callousness on the part of officials lead to revolution in the streets or at the ballot box. The sad fact is that South Africa never had a real revolution in which the old guard and the old attitudes were swept out. Instead the old guard of apartheid officials were merely replaced with a new non-racial “old guard”, with the same values, the same lack of decency and respect for ordinary people, showed by the previous lot. The only difference is that white people have now mostly opted out of the system and do not have to bear the brunt of this callousness.

It is unclear what the Constitutional Court can do or say to change this state of affairs. Even if they find in favour of Mrs Njongi, the same officials will still be in power and the same politicians will be ruling the roost. What we need is another kind of revolution – but no matter who is elected as ANC President in Polokwane, that revolution will not come from him or her. It will only come when people decide to abandon the ANC – the question is, will the ANC let them.

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