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Born in the furnace of fire and affliction

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Pictures: ANA file – Vigilantes, unopposed by the police, set fire to homes in Crossroads, a squatter township near Cape Town, May 1986. Crossroads is the original and most famous of the many squatter townships that grew up in areas where blacks migrated, searching for work. Under apartheid, the government prohibited the building of houses for blacks in restricted urban areas, but people continued to flock to them in hope of employment.

By Wallace Mgoqi

The Convention on the Suppression of the Crime of Apartheid has its roots in the opposition of the United Nations to discriminatory racial policies of the South African apartheid regime, which lasted from 1948 to 1990.

We can confidently say then that all those born after 1948, like myself, in 1949, were born into a furnace of fire and affliction, if we had regard to how life was made difficult from the birth of a black child to their old age through tight regulation of their lives.

Immediately the Nationalist Party came into power, it passed pieces of legislation such as the Population Registration Act, to ensure that every birth is registered in terms of the racially category of the child born, and legislation like the Group Areas Act to ensure that each of the racial groups, White, Coloured, African and Indian lived in separate designated areas. If it so happened that any of the other three groups happened to live in a area that was now designated a White area, legislation was passed to ensure that they were forcibly moved out of that area.

This was another affliction my own family and millions of other families suffered, when we were moved from Goodwood to Nyanga location to start schooling there. Where you live determines the quality of your life: it either enhances your prospects or diminishes or destroys them.

The entire Apartheid edifice was so put together as to create a furnace of fire and affliction for those who were of a darker skin colour – a determination made purely on racial grounds period.

There is a picture etched on my mind, seeing my four cousins, Mzimasi, Ntombi, Ntemi and Titi Mgoqi, on a GG (government) truck, taking them and their mother to far-away Dimbaza near Kingwilliamstown in the Eastern Cape. After the death of their father their mother could no longer retain the Council house, according to Council regulations, at the time, so all widows like herself, all over the country, were regarded as “surplus people” who had to be “dumped” in places like Dimbaza, Ilinge, Sada and all over the country .

The late Father Cosmas Desmond, toured these “dumping grounds” , all over the country and was moved to write the book “The Discarded People” which we will do well to read, as it still in print.

Other people, like the late Bishop David Russell, took on the daily diet they were living on and thereafter fasted on the steps of the Cathedral in Cape Town in protest against the government, on behalf of the plight of the “discarded” people.

These things we write about because we want to keep them in the eyes of the nation, so that even the young people should know where we come from, and so that we too do not develop some form of amnesia about our past – lest it repeats itself.

Memory is a weapon against amnesia and the distortion of our past!

When we remember, we will determine not to allow those things to happen again. Like with the holocaust, seventy years later, some people want to deny that six million Jews died.

As Social Work students at Fort Hare university, we would go out on field visits to places like Dimbaza. Once we took with us left-over loaves of sliced brown bread, from the dining hall and gave it to children on our arrival there. Their eyes lit up as we gave the bread to the children, like they were receiving carrot cake, and it broke my tender heart. It is one of the things that drove me to qualify as a social worker initially, and later as a lawyer, in order to fight the system that dehumanised my fellow human beings.

I determined then that I would dedicate my life to fight all the barriers that denied people their destiny to fulfil their God-endowed talents , dreams and visions. My cousins’ lives were aborted early in their life, as after Dimbaza they could hardly finish their schooling, whilst I was privileged to go to university, only because the place where they were forced to live in determined how far they could go in life.

Their lives were turned upside down from the moment they were forcibly moved out of Nyanga, Cape Town. Some of them returned after the dawn of the new democracy but lived lives of abject poverty. Ntombi died recently, as poor as a church-mouse, living in Philippi. Apartheid was indeed more than just a crime against humanity, it was a furnace of fire and affliction, which burnt most people’s lives into rubble and ashes.

So what is our heritage ?

Surely, over the past twenty-eight years, out of all which has gone wrong, we can count on the fact that we have a solid Constitution, which articulates our basic and fundamental values. It has also established the legislature, the executive and the judiciary as separate, but interdependent arms of government.

As a society we have placed good policies on most aspects of life to guide what we do as a nation. One of the critical aspects missing in our societal life is an anchor that can guide children from kindergarten to adulthood, on what to do and what not to do. Because we opted to be a secular state, we threw things like the bible out of the window Yet it is a matter of fact, from the beginning of our struggle, every political leader was influenced by teachings from Christendom or some other religion, as well as all of our forebears, who drew from such sources of morality.

Without a moral compass now, our youth are at a loss as to which direction to go, and their parents too, people what is right in their own eyes.

As a nation, judging by the major scandals that has rocked us, in the form of state capture and rampant corruption, among officials in government, copying what political leaders are doing, things that promote self-interest , as against good governance and service delivery for the benefit of the citizenry, we are way off the mark. We will lose what is left of our heritage and be a failed state, with nothing to pass on to the next generation – what a tragedy that would be ?

Another area that stands to rob us of our heritage is the paucity of good, well- trained leaders, instead we have relied on a small and ever shrinking pool of trained leaders who have been sidelined by the huge wheel of “it’s our turn to eat” generation, who are only in positions of authority for personal aggrandisement, driven by crude materialism, and exhibitionism, flaunting their ill-acquired wealth for all to see. This is not a heritage we can pass on to the next generation.

There are certain things we did during our struggle days which we had hoped that we would carry forward. These were some green shoots we had hoped would be nurtured over time to reach their full potential, but sadly it was not to be. One of those was the initiative in dispute resolution in the labour field, between employers and employees, and later extended to community conflicts as these also escalated over the transition period. Institutions like the Independent Mediation Service of South Africa, (IMSSA ) instead of being supported, especially by government, were in fact allowed to die, at a time when the country was moving into an era of ever-increasing conflict in our society.

Another area in which we had developed some mechanisms for dealing with conflict at local level, and even pro-actively dealt with conflict, were street committees. These community-based structures were effective in promoting good governance at local level, but somehow we also allowed them to atrophy, and degenerate into extinction and they are no longer functional in communities.

We gave our backs to U-Buntu and interest-based methods of dispute settlement or involving informal discussion and problem-solving methods like facilitation, conciliation, negotiation, and mediation, and opted for rights-based methods of dispute settlement, like litigation in courts and arbitration, in private forums – hence we have become such a litigious society – and could have been anywhere, in the West not in Africa.

In conflict resolution, there are small and scattered initiatives , which are also not enjoying the support of government as they should. They are doing an excellent and sterling job, but are small in scale and under-funded or not at all.

If we are going to recover lost ground through our neglect over the years , we are going to have to go back to the drawing board, take all those things which worked in the past, but failed to carry them over into our new democracy.

We continue to suffer from the effects of the furnace of fire and affliction.

Mgoqi is chairperson of Ayo Technology Solutions Ltd.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.