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Twenty years of democracy: Much has changed, but not enough

Ela Gandhi

While there is better access to a quality life, let us not forget the sacrificies that made our freedom possible and pretend there's no more to do.

Phoenix informal settlement in Inanda, now known as Bambayi, has undergone many upgrades in the last 20 years. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

When I joined the struggle for liberation in the late 1950s, I was motivated by the unjust system. Apart from the racial discrimination imposed by the many "petty apartheid" laws, and the sanctions against opponents of the system applied by the many "security laws", some of the injustices I personally witnessed were a result of the "trespass laws".

I saw African people harassed in the early hours of the morning, when police vans with dogs would raid an area and all those found without a valid pass would be arrested. I witnessed the terror that engulfed the area during these raids, as women and children tried to flee and take shelter in the nearby sugarcane fields. Often dogs were released to find them. The next morning, I would see people at our clinic with wounds inflicted by the dogs. I saw frantic women trying to raise funds to free their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers from prison.

I also witnessed women trying to eke out a living by making beaded ornaments, which they tried to sell to tourists in the city. But they were harassed, arrested under the same "trespass law", and had all their products confiscated.

The horror of this filled me with a passion to ensure that this cruel, unjust government did not last long. I learnt about colonialism in South Africa and how it made the oppressed powerless, kept away from the centre, and yet they provided cheap labour. This of course would not happen if they got a good education and were comfortable in their areas. So their areas, the "reserves", were deprived and impoverished to ensure they remained reservoirs of cheap labour.

In racial terms, South Africa was a "Christian National State", built on a belief in the superiority of the "chosen" white race. All the policies and systems of this government were designed to promote this belief. Liberation from such a situation meant discarding all the trappings of this system and creating a new ethos of equality, of access, of freedom from fear of the police, and a country where each individual could develop their full potential, freely and fairly.

Change meant getting away from an old, unjust ideology to a new, just, equitable ideology. This, for me, is an important issue of contention today: I believe the ideological change is far more important than to change racial ratios. Looking at what has been achieved in 20 years, one needs to see whether we have indeed been able to change this ideology, which was rooted in the minds of many people.

I was born and lived for nearly 40 years in the Phoenix settlement established by Mahatma Gandhi, my grandfather, in an area now known as Bambayi in Inanda, KwaZulu-Natal. The apartheid government designated it Released Area No 33, I think because the area was not declared for any particular race group, so people of all races lived there – an island in apartheid South Africa. Phoenix was a 100-acre property, with the adjoining settlements of Ohlange, established by Dr John Langalibalele Dube, and Shembe, established by Nkosi Isaiah Shembe.

We had no electricity, water, municipal services, proper roads or healthcare. The nearest hospital or clinic was in Durban, more than 20km away. The only transport was that of private bus companies.

In my early years, there were a few hundred families living in this area. Today, it is crowded with thousands of families. There is now electricity. Thousands of taxis transport commuters. There are municipal services and universal access to water and tarred roads. All this has happened in the past 20 years.

On a recent visit to the area, a friend and I were sitting on the balcony of a building on the settlement. It was around 2.30pm and we were watching children going home from school. My friend, who had also grown up there, was complaining about the government and its lack of delivery. He told me how poor the people living in the surrounding informal settlement were.

I, on the other hand, was struck by the sight of the neatly dressed children with satchels on their shoulders and shoes and socks on their feet walking to these poverty-stricken homes. That was not familiar in the old apartheid days. Mostly, children would be dressed in old clothes with no shoes or socks, and their books were in plastic bags. I drew my friend's attention to this and asked if he saw the change in the image. His response was: "Yes, but that's because the government supplies these people with uniforms and they are all getting government grants."

This was not possible in the past. A grant was so small that it was given once every two months. Certainly, far fewer people were eligible for grants. So that has certainly changed for the poorest of the poor. The nearest clinic is within walking distance. There are sufficient schools in the area to ensure that every child has access to education. Electricity, water, municipal services and roads have been built in the past 20 years.

Yet there are protests in many areas about service delivery. I can see the development from the past to the present, where I grew up, but there are undoubtedly areas where nothing has changed. Why this uneven development? In my view, it is caused by specific problems: where there is an efficient, caring system in place, more is being done; where there is corruption and maladministration, less is done.

Clearly the services the community is clamouring for cannot be delivered overnight, unless we opt for a revolution – which would enable an authoritarian regime to overhaul the entire system and replace it with one where people's needs become the central feature instead of democratic freedoms. But this comes with its own problems. My point is that no other government is going to be able to deliver what the people need.

Corruption, lack of delivery and shoddy workmanship are huge issues. But, seen through experience in other countries, it is something that pervades society today, and will not necessarily change with a new government. In my view, it requires a complete change of heart and mind-set to one in which people are driven by conscience and not greed.

What is important now at this critical moment, when our country is facing an election and the burden of a massive scandal involving the highest office, is to take this opportunity to think seriously about the ideology that drove us to make sacrifices for liberation; to look within ourselves and make the necessary changes.

We need to ask ourselves whether this ideology is firmly rooted in our political and private lives.

Gandhiji wrote, in Young India in 1929: "The only code that guides a reformer is his own conscience in the last resort." If our liberation is truly to mean something, we have to make an effort as a country to ensure that we let go of the remnants of past prejudices and thinking; we must join hands towards developing and working for our country, so that we can be truly proud of it.

For this dream to be realised, we also need to see to it that justice in our country is done and seen to be done; we must not carry the burden of past injustices into the present. The spirit of ubuntu should permeate our society: anger, hatred, violence and recrimination must be discarded, to be replaced by responsibility, sacrifice, nonviolence and active participation in the process of change.

Ela Gandhi is a former ANC MP, an honorary managing trustee of the Gandhi Development Trust and vice-president of the World Conference on Religions for Peace InternationalIn my early years, there were a few hundred families living in this area. Today, it is crowded with thousands of families

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