Mon, Aug

As South Africa’s leaders quarrel, the real struggle continues

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If you watch political events or have even a marginal interest in politics, South Africa is a distracting place. Today, in Parliament, there’ll be a secret ballot vote of no confidence in the president. Then there are the details of how the Gupta family has wormed its way into apparently every nook and cranny of the government, and the decisions as to who will lead the ANC post-2019 dominate our headlines.

These are important matters; they are pivotal in determining the direction South Africa will take in the coming years. But the constant state of ‘crisis’ and the concomitant instability is delaying our ability to deal with the complex and sticky problems associated with poverty and inequality.

To Patrick (not his real name), this political ‘noise’ is not even a distant distraction; but it does have a serious impact on his life and on his ability to imagine a more positive future for him and his children. Because while headline stories play out in newsrooms, hotel conference rooms and homes in Saxonwold and Sandton, he is struggling to water his vegetable garden, get himself up and to work in the morning, recover from the constant ailments that plague him, and be a good parent to his two children.

If SA remains distracted by politics, the cycles of poverty and deprivation will continue

Patrick’s story is about the difficult stuff we have to get right if we are going to shift from a country at war with itself to one where there truly are equal chances at success and well-being for all.

Patrick lives in an old but solid home in a small peri-urban township. He’s lived here all his life. He is in his early 40s, a few years younger than I am. In his younger days he drank and smoked a lot.

He left most of that behind some years ago, but his body has not forgotten. His kidneys remind him when they ache in the mornings. His ribs and hips remind him after a long day of physical labour, and he often gets sick. The clinic is close to his home, but he doesn’t trust the nurses – he feels they’ve given him bad advice, or the wrong medication too many times, and so he seldom seeks help there.

I don’t know if the nurses get it wrong or not, they seem dedicated and hard-working; but Patrick has written them off, and rather struggles along with his poor health. The nurses also don’t have the medication that might help his underlying depression. For that you need to go to a clinic in a distant township and the taxi fare is beyond his means.

Because he often doesn’t feel well, he frequently misses days at work. And on Friday one of his friends beat him up over a dispute about music. He hasn’t been able to get to work all week because his eye is swollen and bruised and his body hurts. But mostly he just doesn’t feel as if anything is worth the effort.

A recent survey found that 16.8% of caregivers suffer from anxiety and depression

He is employed by a small local nursery where he started working only a few weeks ago. When he doesn’t turn up for work he doesn’t get paid, and his absence means that the nursery starts falling behind, and that affects turnover.

His wife left him a few years ago, mostly because of his drinking, but also because the fighting was constant. He tries to look after his children, but when he came home battered and beaten on Friday it upset his daughter and he had to send her back to her mother. He usually has the children for the weekend. It didn’t help his sense of failure.

Patrick lives hand to mouth – so when a few days have passed without any pay, he and the children go to bed hungry. Then the children struggle to concentrate at school, are lethargic and difficult, get angry and lose respect for their father who is unable to provide – that’s what their mother says anyway.

There are many days when Patrick feels angry and frustrated or trapped and hopeless. He is certain there is little he can do to change his life, or make sure his children have a better life than his. He is short of the things theorists call self-efficacy – the belief that you can succeed at certain tasks, or change your circumstances for the better. If you don’t have it, it is very much harder to set and achieve goals, and consequently to change your circumstances.

This is pretty much how nearly one in every five people living in his community feels. We know this because a recent community-wide survey (as yet unpublished) found that 16.8% of caregivers suffer from clinical levels of anxiety and depression. This seems to undermine collective efficacy, which is sometimes described as the ‘glue’ that holds communities together. It is what will make some communities good at fighting crime and violence, and others unable to make any change at all.

Government officials struggle to stay motivated when their political head’s attention is elsewhere

There are several ways in which the political drama plays into this: listening to the news, watching food prices increase and feeling abandoned by political leaders make us feel quite hopeless about the future. It also makes delivering the kinds of programmes that can support Patrick and his children more difficult, not least because social service budgets are getting increasingly tighter. It is also hard for government officials to retain their motivation, and drive forward complex, co-ordinated social programmes when their political head’s attention is elsewhere.

If we remain distracted by political crises for much longer, we will continue to miss opportunities to put in place the comprehensive social programmes that can break the cycles of poverty and deprivation that repeat themselves through generations. This is why resolving our governance crisis is critical and urgent.