Constitution must become a living reality for the poor

“It is all too easy to put the poor into a category, a mental ghetto of sorts, and leave them to eke out their existence, hoping that the government will make good on its promises to address the issues: lack of housing, hunger, denial of the basic rights to education and indeed to the hope of a better future.

But the poor have their own voice, they know the story of their lives and they know what would improve their lives.”
Etienne brought this article to our attention, written by Njongonkulu Ndungane, the former Archbishop of Cape Town.

Read the full article and share your opinions …

It is all too easy to put the poor into a category, a mental ghetto of sorts, and leave them to eke out their existence, hoping that the government will make good on its promises to address the issues: lack of housing, hunger, denial of the basic rights to education and indeed to the hope of a better future.

But the poor have their own voice, they know the story of their lives and they know what would improve their lives.

If you asked: “What is poverty?” you would get varied responses, according to the gender, race, age and geographic location of respondents.

Woven into the responses would be a central feature: that poverty is not only about the lack of financial resources, but more centrally about an absence of opportunities and choices that allow people to build decent lives for themselves and their families.

This emerged clearly 10 years ago, when I was one of the commissioners at the Speak Out on Poverty public hearings.

Those hearings, held in each of the nine provinces, were convened between 31 March and 19 June 1998 by the SA Human Rights Commission, the Commission on Gender Equality and the SA Non-governmental Organisation Coalition.

More than 10 000 people participated and nearly 600 people presented oral evidence over the 35 days of the hearings.

What emerged was the fact that poverty is about an ongoing struggle with starvation and lack of access to shelter, services, income and jobs.

In that context, poverty can be described as the violation of the rights to basic resources.

The testimonies provided sufficient evidence of the innovation and vision of people who survive against all odds. It was clear, however, that resourcefulness is not enough. The poor need to be given the capacity to fend for themselves and reduce their reliance on hand-outs.

To achieve this, we must analyse how the poor are “included” in the economy and whether the market is sufficiently open for the poor.

It seems fitting then that, 10 years later, we should return to the nine provinces and hear from the poor – who are, after all, the experts on their own poverty – whether things have changed, for better or for worse.

This process began in Mangaung, Bloemfontein, on August 1. Assisted by volunteers from faith-based, community-based and non-governmental organisations, a team of commissioners travelled to Paradise Hall to listen to the poor again speak out on poverty.

Some of the testimonies were heard by the commissioners under my chairmanship, others were shared in small focus groups, others were taken down by volunteers, while some people were given the opportunity to write down their own stories.

An elderly man, dressed in a well-worn but smart grey suit, sat down at a table and began to write his story. For the five hours that the hearings were under way he did not move from his seat. He did not even stand up to get tea when it was served.

When he was finished writing, he greeted some of the volunteers and made his way out of the hall.

His name was Mabandla Damane. The words he wrote chronicling his life will become part of the report to be drawn up after the hearings have visited all of the nine provinces.

We are asked why we have come back to hear the stories of people’s lives again, especially as we cannot claim to have won the war against poverty.

My answer is that we owe it to the people who generously shared their lives with us in 1998, to give them some sort of report back and to hear the circumstances of their lives again.

In all truth we cannot say that much has been achieved.

It has to be noted that the hearings are a documentary process. We cannot promise to change the circumstances of people’s lives – we do not have the resources for that – but we do have the power to bring their stories to those in power and those who live in comfort in this country.

We can ask those people to listen and respond to the needs articulated by the poor. Because 10 years on, evidence suggests that the number of people living in poverty has increased.

Given that our constitution guarantees civil and social rights, it is only fair to demand that the same constitution be a living reality for everyone, including the poor.

This initiative is intended to serve as much-needed feedback on the 1998 hearings. We feel that it is important for us to assess, from the poor, the actions that have been taken to address their plight; actions that they have taken to improve their own lives; and their awareness of economic and social rights as enshrined in the constitution.

The hearings will provide a rich opportunity to hear people speak for themselves and present solutions to the challenges they face.

The idea is to use these people’s voices to carry the issues to the corridors of power. At the end of the day we wish to see a prioritisation of poor people’s issues and a move from talk to action in terms of policy formulation and implementation.

This initiative will also serve as a pilot for similar interventions around the continent, and indeed around the world, through our partnerships with other organisations. We hope these bodies will take on the issue of poverty hearings as a tool for advocacy and use them in various countries to advocate for prioritisation of issues that affect the poor.

We owe it to the poor to listen to them, whether we are in government or members of civil society, because we have been given stewardship of the world and our country by God.

We have a duty of care and compassion towards those in need. We need to offer them the dignity of hearing their stories.

Those who come forward to talk at the hearings do so with a sense of generosity, as well as a sense of hope that someone will hear them. It is now time that those elected to power do so.

Ironically, on the day the poverty hearings began it was announced that the price of petrol and diesel were to drop, but that the price of paraffin, so vital in many poor people’s lives, was to rise.

These are the issues we need to carry to the corridors of power. We have to remind those entrusted with the needs of every citizen of this country that they are as accountable to the poor as they are to big business and the wealthy citizens who have a host of options to hand.

In a most bitter irony, I wrote this on the day that Irene Grootboom, best known for her socioeconomic rights activism, died in a shack fire. She died in a Wallacedene informal settlement after years of waiting for a decent house to live in. Her death illustrates the urgency with which we need to ensure a better life for all South Africans.

The Freedom Charter promises “houses, security and comfort for all”. It is a cornerstone of our fight for social justice in this country. We no longer have the luxury of not hearing the voices of the poor.

To continue to ignore them is a danger, not only in terms of human suffering, but in terms of building a safe and secure country for us all.

The poor do not live in a ghetto, set apart from us. They are our fellow citizens. The time has come for the government to listen to their voices and to act to change things for the better.

See the original article here …
http://www.busrep.co.za/index.php?fArticleId=4569160

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2 Responses

  1. Just a note to colleagues that IDASA has been involved in the organising of this round of the Speak Out on Poverty Hearings. For those in Cape Town, you may have seen the posters in the building. The Western Cape Hearings take place on September 2, and are open to the public for anyone interested.

  2. “It seems fitting then that, 10 years later, we should return to the nine provinces and hear from the poor – who are, after all, the experts on their own poverty – whether things have changed, for better or for worse.”

    We should be asking questions: What have we done to change the environment and how people look at themselves? What empowers people to change their conditions? In the end, government and structures can only do so much – the rest is up to individuals who have support and guidance from the society in which they live.

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