We cannot build a country without human dignity, honesty and compassion

Sipiwe Ngcobo, a survivor of Usindiso building fire in Marshaltown, at the Denver temporary shelters in Johannesburg.
NEW SHELTER: Sipiwe Ngcobo, a survivor of Usindiso building fire in Marshaltown, at the Denver temporary shelters in Johannesburg.

The greatest tragedy of this election is that we are bombarded with promises of what politicians claim they will do for us, and few words about what really matters: who we are and how we build our country based on that understanding.

What are our values — the fundamental beliefs that guide our actions as a society? Who are we and how then do we treat our poorest of the poor, and our rich?

It is only when we know the answers to these questions that we can really say how we will act.

Look at our streets, towns, cities. They are filthy.

Look at the litter outside and inside our hospitals. It’s horrendous. We can clean these facilities up today, but if we have not made cleanliness and personal responsibility for our environment a key part of our value system, then tomorrow they will be filthy again.

Countries don’t become great because they throw easy promises about. They become great because they identify and build a set of values by which they will, collectively, get down to the work of constructing the society they wish to raise future generations in.

It has been saddening to watch many of our politicians prancing about on the campaign trail making inane promises without understanding just how they have contributed to the destruction of our communities

What are the values that undergird every action we take as a government and a country?

If, for example, we do not put human dignity at the centre of our values then we will do what the City of Joburg is doing right now. I am referring here to the city’s decision to house the victims of the Usindiso building fire in Joburg last year, killing at least 77 people, in shacks at a site in Denver.

Read that again: the City of Joburg is housing people in shacks. I am ashamed to write that line. I grew up on ANC literature that spoke about how we will eradicate shacklands in a new SA.  Now, 30 years into democracy, the government of the people builds shacks. Many, many, shacks.

This story gets worse. According to The Sowetan newspaper, the 3.5m2 corrugated iron shacks that the city has built have no foundation and no ceiling. Water seeps in through the roof.

The workmanship is so shoddy that there are gaps between the shacks’ wooden frames and corrugated iron sheet walls.

In the winter, the cold blasts in. In the summer, the corrugated iron makes this a steam room.

There is a cheap hardboard door and a window. The city paid a contractor R14,000 per shack. It has built 300 of these things.

When the Sowetan pointed out the defects of these shacks to the contractor, Khamanyamana Adam Baloyi, owner of Laphinda Security and Cleaning Service, he answered: “A shack is not a permanent thing that will make you feel [comfortable] like you are in Los Angeles.”

He pocketed a cool R4,2-million from City of Joburg for the project.

In his inauguration speech on 10 May 1994, Nelson Mandela told the world: “We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity — a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

What kind of human dignity would the mayor of Joburg have in mind when, in the middle of winter, he houses people in shacks? What kind of human dignity are we talking about when poor people are told that they should know that they are not in Los Angeles and should just take the dehumanising treatment dished out to them?

Our politicians have been making all kinds of wild promises.

No-one talks about the values that should undergird these promises. We can double the number of police officers, for example, but a greater issue is that many of our officers are corrupt, bribe-taking, hustlers.

Every day on social media one is astounded by videos of officers involved in criminality. Doubling police numbers merely means doubling the number of people shaking down ordinary citizens.

Who are we, what are our fundamental values, and how do we build a society anchored on these values?

When politicians like Jacob Zuma ascend a stage, they hardly ever mention a value such as personal responsibility.

When they are caught doing something horrendous, they hardly ever take personal responsibility. Instead, they rush to claim they are a victim of some plot.

How, then, can the man or woman in the street take personal responsibility for keeping their street clean when “our leaders” never take personal responsibility for anything?

The values Mandela spoke about — human dignity, honesty, compassion, integrity — are hardly evident in our political discourse today. We cannot build a country this way.


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