Irene Grootboom died this week, penniless and homeless in her shack in Wallacedene. It is an image at odds with the photograph of her we publish in this edition: in it she spreads her arms in victory. She smiles, perhaps thinking of the home that might one day be hers.

The Grootboom judgement to which she lent her name has become shorthand for one of post-apartheid South Africa’s major pro-poor victories. It gives extra muscle to the Constitution’s socio-economic rights—specifically the right to shelter—by compelling the government to take action. The ruling has set precedents for other judgements on the socio-economic rights of South Africans.

That Grootboom died in her shack, her victory unrealised, at the beginning of women’s month should shame us all and goad the government into renewed commitment. Her death is a poignant symbol of the development failures of a middle-income country with a budget surplus, which for eight years could not provide proper shelter for a woman whom the Constitutional Court ruled it should immediately house.

And, in the week of her death, what was our government doing? Half of it was in Pietermaritzburg dissing the high court for “persecuting” ANC president Jacob Zuma. The delegation included Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, who told us that the ministerial handbook allows party work. Sure.

The other half was furiously defending President Thabo Mbeki against allegations that he channelled payola to the ruling party from the arms deal. On both sides there is a deeply worrying conflation of party and state imperatives, which leaves most South Africans out in the cold and allows the likes of Grootboom to die in a shack. With the attention and energy of our public representatives distracted by internal party politicking, they have forgotten that their first duty is to the poor.

In Parliament the same trend is visible. Despite widespread civil society opposition to the dissolution of the Scorpions, ANC apparatchiks tell us that they are accountable only to the party.

Zuma has every right to defend himself by using every legal avenue. But as a leader, he is also responsible for ensuring that his and his supporters’ actions do not terminally damage the country he so desperately wants to lead. One of his most fanatical backers, South African Communist Party secretary general Blade Nzimande, was quoted this week warning that he would take the country to the brink if Zuma’s case was not dropped.

The single-minded struggle to ensure that Zuma moves into the Union Buildings has spawned a massive campaign of intimidation of the judiciary and other democratic institutions, which looks set to dominate the political landscape over at least the medium term.

The country’s real priorities, like those symbolised by Grootboom, look set to stay on the backburner—despite the fact that the post-Polokwane ANC projects itself as a party back in touch with the people.

ANC president Jacob Zuma must be left to fight his battles on his own. He is not a victim of judicial persecution; he faces a bog-standard corruption trial. If he cares for his country, he should entreat his party and allies to start fighting the battles that really matter to South Africans.

Zim: let the people speak

The Zimbabwe power-sharing negotiation is far from ideal.

There ought not to have been a need for such a process: the March presidential elections that saw Morgan Tsvangirai emerge victorious but without enough votes to secure him leadership of that nation should have been a cue as to whom Zimbabweans want as their leader.

It would have been helpful if the negotiations had included more civil society representatives and more political players than the triumvirate that is Zanu-PF and the two MDC factions.

These were tricky circumstances and we are not blind to the reality that issues such as the guarantee of property rights, land distribution and the drawing-up of a Constitution will have to be tackled head-on to make outcomes of the Pretoria talks meaningful and lasting.

Most certainly families of victims of political violence will want justice for themselves and their loved ones, killed and maimed by Robert Mugabe’s band of brigands. The shuttle diplomacy between Pretoria and Harare will need to provide answers to those families who have lost their land and property.

Zimbabwe is on the cusp of a new order. By definition, such times are tense and uncertain, and cynicism under these conditions seems a reasonable reflex. But our responsibility as neighbours and as members of the international community is to offer the people of Zimbabwe our support, not our cynicism.

The electoral system in Zimbabwe has failed to give expression to the will of the people. The international community will be guilty of the same offence if it disregards the opinion of Zimbabweans and what they are willing to live with.

Without being prescriptive, we hope that the people of Zimbabwe will not only accept a transitional order, but will also see this as an opportunity to create a new culture that does away with the impunity that has survived the transition from Ian Smith’s regime to Mugabe’s, the latter’s starting with the wanton, mass slaughter of the Ndebeles in the 1980s.

The best the rest of the international community can and should do is take lessons from Zimbabwe so that it never again allows another prosperous country to descend into the abyss while it watches.

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