Cheating the poor

In recent weeks public discourse has been dominated by news and debates about the strategies South Africa should use to fight poverty. Drivenby soaring food prices, reports of grinding poverty in our rural provinces and ideological battles within the ruling African National Congress alliance, this debate has rightly come to occupy South Africa’s political centre stage.

Welfare bodies, trade unions and community organisations have been agitating for the government to introduce a Basic Income Grant, in terms of which all South Africans would receive a small monthly amount to alleviate want. The government has steadfastly rejected this, underlining instead the need to bolster the current system of social security by improving child grants and the pension system.The government has at least gestured at poverty alleviation by collaborating with the private sector in an attempt to provide cheap staple foods to poor people.

Sadly, while these debates are raging and initiatives are being implemented, some public servants and community activists have been stealing from the poor. We report in this newspaper that the Gauteng government has been compelled to shut down more than 300 poverty alleviation projects because of corruption, fraud, ineptitude and mismanagement. It is now planning to revamp its poverty intervention strategies and put in place more efficient and transparent ways of distributing poverty relief.

While we are perturbed that such corruption and ineptitude was allowed to go unchecked in the first place, we welcome the department’s decisive action.

Within the bowels of our public service still lurk thousands of people who do not understand that theirs is to serve the public and not themselves.At each level of government, public servants seem to be consistently finding and creating opportunities for self-enrichment.

Although measures have been put in place to discourage corruption and punish those caught indulging in it, civil servants continue to raid the public purse. Their main prey has tended to be the poor and the vulnerable.

What is even more disturbing about the Gauteng situation is that the culprits included members of NGOs, men and women who should be at the forefront of efforts to help the vulnerable.

The government uses the NGO sector to fulfil certain delivery functions because the sector is seen to be closer to communities. NGOs have traditionally attracted people who care about grassroots issues and are driven by a passionate belief in good causes. They have often played a watchdog role over the performance of government institutions.

That people from this sector should sabotage government efforts to uplift the poor bodes ill. It shows us that our society may be more damaged than we care to admit. It tells us that the fight against corruption will not only be wonthrough police action, strict regulation and monitoring mechanisms.

There is a need to urgently repair the nation’s moral fibre. This will require more than the catchy phrases trotted out by politicians and religious leaders several times a year when they have captive audiences.

Most South Africans are still repulsed by corruption and ineptitude. We can arrest this trend before more people throw their hands in the air and side with the vile elements.

Stop beating the war drums

KwaZulu-Natal remains unique among South Africa’s provinces. Only there does the apartheid-era custom of settling political differences with violence and threats, rather than rational dialogue, survive after nearly a decade of democracy.

With floor crossing, and the planned defection to the African National Congress of five legislators from the Inkatha Freedom Party and other parties, war drums have started rumbling. If they stand the test of the Constitution, the defections could hand the ANC control of the province. There are indications that the recent murder of two councillors — one from the ANC, the other from the IFP — may be linked to the floor-crossing exercise. A councillor directly associated with encouraging defections from the ANC to Inkatha has gone into hiding, allegedly after receiving death threats.

With the virtual disappearance of political violence elsewhere in South Africa one would expect a level of maturity from KwaZulu-Natal’s politicians, leading them to avoid war talk and uphold South Africa’s constitutional order. The IFP may be justifiably angry that its control of the province is under threat because of legislative sleight of hand, rather than the will of the electorate. It seems highly questionable, and evidence of a cynical hunger for power, that the ruling party is to pass a law that specifically protects the seats of five would-be floor crossers. But Inkatha has no excuse for stirring up militant emotions and blowing uphondo lukabhejane (the rhino clarion horn), subtly threatening a regression to violence if it does not get its way.

KwaZulu-Natal has been torn by conflict of all kinds — from ethnic and clan faction fights to taxi wars and sectarian violence. Its people deserve peace and development.

Leaders are chosen to give direction. In KwaZulu-Natal’s case this means promoting a culture of peaceful dialogue and respect for constitutional democracy.

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