Dear Mr Mantashe
Several weeks ago I sent you an SMS requesting a meeting. To my surprise, several days later, in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, you called me back.
In your gruff manner, you asked me why “I only see you in court?”
In response, I tried to explain why social justice campaigns, such as those led by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and Section27, so often lead us to the courts.
I explained that we wanted a “frank and honest” discussion with you about the causes of conflict between ourselves and the ANC, a party many of us were members of from an early age.
Your response was that I was “very frank”. And that’s where we left it. You promised to call back to arrange a meeting, but I have heard nothing more.
There is some urgency. For many of the people we serve every day counts. Some die in hospitals because there are not enough doctors or drugs; some try to study without desks and textbooks. As you know all too well, time moves slowly when you are suffering.
But, of course, I understand that you are busy and a Very Very Important Person, and I have no right to assume that I may demand your attention.
But, on the other hand, I’m a busy citizen and political parties are supposed to be interested in our views. So here’s what I wanted to say.
There were several reasons for my request to meet. The most pressing was this: the ANC and the ANC government seem to misunderstand and mistrust civil society organisations such as the TAC and Section27. You impute to us hidden agendas and call us “counter-majoritarians”.
I wanted to tell you we should be seen as allies, not opponents. Organisations that work to realise the constitutional vision of a society based on “democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights” would far rather be co-operating with the ANC in pursuit of the dignity and equality for what you call “our people”, than fighting you. We would far rather be mobilising human resources and capital for our schools and health facilities than finding ourselves in a drawn-out trench warfare over textbooks, drugs, desks and toilets.
But increasingly we believe that active collaboration to achieve this vision requires a different ANC to the one we encounter daily in government offices. It requires an ANC that is really committed to radical transformation and equality – and that is willing to punish the corrupt officials who dirty your flag.
This leads me directly to a second matter that I wanted to raise with you. TAC activists working in clinics and communities do their best to advance and implement the 10-point plan of our health minister, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi.
But the best health minister in our history cannot succeed when rapacious and incompetent officials betray his vision at the place where policies and programmes must be implemented – in our provinces.
This is the story of the Eastern Cape, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and now the Free State.
You must surely have seen media reports of the disaster and degradation of the health system in the Free State. Do you believe these reports? Or do ANC leaders in that province tell you they are made up or exaggerated; that they are part of a “neoliberal”- or Democratic Alliance- or Economic Freedom Fighters-led “plot” to undermine them?
Recently I tried to discuss the scale of this crisis with a senior official in the national health department. I asked why the national executive didn’t use its powers under section 100(1)(b) of the Constitution to “maintain essential national standards” in health service delivery.
“Why,” I asked him, “are allegedly corrupt and incapable officials like the Free State MEC for health, Dr Benny Malakoane, not fired?” His response was that “the minister doesn’t have that power”.
“Who does then?” I asked.
“Phone Gwede Mantashe” was his reply.
This reply is scary. It suggests that political structures have more power than constitutional ones.
That night I sent my message to you requesting a meeting.
So, Comrade Gwede, will you fire Malakoane? This person has responsibility for the health of over 2.5-million people. But he is also currently on trial charged with fraud, corruption and money laundering.
And here lies the heart of our problem. To us it seems that MECs like Malakoane (and many others) are untouchable. They are protected by their premiers, seemingly beyond accountability and above the law.
As you know, we spend much of our time confronting your MECs and their officials about their failure to protect or fulfil constitutional rights, but rarely does it lead to improvements.
So, will you fire Malakoane?
Finally, allow me to get back to the matter of the courts.
They are assigned a vital role in our democracy. They have a whole chapter to themselves in the Constitution, which former ANC president Nelson Mandela signed into law in 1996. They are there so that when people believe that they have failed to have their rights protected by the other arms of government they still have recourse to the law.
In the words of section 34 of the Constitution: “Everyone has the right to have any dispute that can be resolved by the application of law decided in a fair public hearing before a court or, where appropriate, another independent and impartial tribunal or forum.”
When we have our meeting, I will show you the volumes of failed correspondence, protests, meetings and submissions that usually precede a court case. We have whole files of letters to the Limpopo department of education. Last year, for example, we tried in vain for three months to have school meals restored to thousands of children in one education circuit of Limpopo. Eventually this only happened after we filed legal papers to get the children their rights to sufficient food.
And, finally, on the matter of the courts, I presume you know that one of the next times you will see us in the Constitutional Court it will be at the instigation of Comrade Angie Motshekga, the minister of basic education. This is because the minister has decided to launch an appeal to the court to defend her right not to have to provide every learner in Limpopo with a prescribed textbook for each prescribed subject before the start of the academic year.
One wonders what Hector Pieterson and the generation of students of 1976 who left South Africa to join the ANC and take up arms to fight for equality would have thought of that.
Seeing as I have had to pen this communication as an open letter and given that I have been “very frank”, I believe it only appropriate that you respond publicly and with equal frankness.
We do, however, remain available for that meeting.
Yours in the quest for dignity, equality and social justice.