Dr Ismail Lagardien :Focus on improving basics

Ismail LagardienA brief exchange on social media drew my attention over the weekend. A high-ranking member of the EFF laid down a slogan that was rapidly shared.

The politician said the failures of local government had nothing to do with practical day-to-day issues, and everything to do with economic history and ideology.

It’s hard to argue against that, intellectually, but history is not destiny and ideology can never become a shield or a ruse to conceal our most egregious failings.

One is, of course, free to blame history and ideology for crime, violence, rape, burglary, failures in healthcare and education or even for poor public transport.

Indeed, the social crisis in Venezuela, where citizens have to flee to neighbouring countries to buy food, the financial and economic crises in parts of the West, where people have been exposed to poverty and inequality that is unfamiliar to the current generation, or the pained smiles on the faces of North Koreans can all be explained by ideological choices that were made by political leaders.

There is, no doubt a causal link between the superstructure of society and daily lives down on the ground, so to speak.

What is difficult, however, is to convince people who live on the street, or in homes that do not have sanitation or energy to warm families in winter, or commuters who have to take two or more taxis to and from work that the everyday misery of their lives cannot be alleviated by practical things like food, clothes, shelter, sanitation, and a reliable and affordable public transport system.

In the 19th century, a journalist, thinker and businessman from a wealthy German family (it was not Karl Marx) once said that people must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing before they could pursue politics or arts.

I would go a step further and say that by deflecting attention away from everyday practicalities of life it becomes easy to avoid accountability and ethical responsibility for public policies that have failed communities.

In the same way that economists cannot hide behind “the market” for the policy prescriptions they made, and that may have plunged people into misery, elected officials cannot escape the liability of their freedom.

Every policy they choose is a decision against another possible course of action, and for this they have to be held accountable and are amenable, therefore, to moral judgment.

There can be no getting away from this. Ideology can be powerful, but it cannot be a shield. History is not destiny.

The reality of failures in public service delivery, the very practicalities of everyday life were brought home in a few remarkably insightful passages written in 2006 by Phyllis Ntantala (the mother of Pallo Jordan) after her experiences at Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital in Mthatha.

“I was born and raised in the Eastern Cape. On a visit home I collapsed on the night of June 7 and was admitted as an emergency case to the intensive care unit at the Nelson Mandela Hospital.

“There I was stripped and lay naked in bed under an obviously used sheet for two days until a member of my family managed to bring me some night clothes.

In all my 80-plus years I have never felt as insulted as I did for those two days and nights lying naked in that bed. “Yet this is a modern, state-of-the-art facility, well designed and with the latest equipment.

Unfortunately, however, some of the equipment malfunctions. “Toilet tanks, for example, do not fill up automatically and remain dry, with the result that waste is not flushed away.

Nobody seemed to know why this should be so, or why lights in the wards are dim or do not function at all, or why there are no lights or bells for patients to summon help.”

It seems to me that casting the failures of municipal public services in esoteric ideological terms is a luxury that is the preserve of the privileged.

“I want to close with something that Govan Mbeki said many years ago. “Future historians have the responsibility to study this period of our history and make their own judgments.

In doing so, I am sure they will abide by the dictum that revolutions, even modest ones, are made not in our dreams, but in concrete, historical situations.

“What we have achieved, though far from perfect, is a starting point.”

When we set out on the journey to transform the country and institutions more than two decades ago, we created a starting point, as Mbeki might have said.

We might benefit from looking at practical day-to-day things that we have changed along the way, the progress that has been made and the work that still needs to be done.

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