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Week in Review 147: Pepper spray and political turmoil

Stephen Lewis comments on recent events in South Africa


This pattern of tortured political tumult is not confined solely to Washington. There’s another democratic country in this world that is in a downward spiral. It’s the most important country on the African continent: South Africa, and it’s facing some dreadful internal difficulties.

As a matter of fact, you may have noticed that a week or ten days ago, there was a fracas in the South African parliament, where the Opposition members attempted to shout down the president, Jacob Zuma, a man who is positively drowning in patronage and corruption… They tried to prevent him from delivering the ‘State of the Nation’ address, and they were subdued by the entry of police and military in very large numbers, who violently removed the opposition members from the legislature and used pepper spray in the process. As it turned out, the ‘State of the Nation’ message was a vacuous document, mirroring the pessimism and fatalism in the country, as a whole. The African National Congress, the major political party, is seething internally, because they lost control over a number of cities in the municipal elections last July and they have a very rivalrous and unpleasant effort internally to succeed Jacob Zuma, if he’s ever persuaded to step down or if he is removed.

Meanwhile, the country as a whole is struggling. The unemployment rate is at 27%. For the youth, it’s probably 40 to 50%. Fully half of the population, more than 25 million people, live below the poverty line. They have the highest number of cases of HIV and AIDS in the world, and they have the second highest number of cases–second only to India–of tuberculosis. The crime rates are astronomically high. South Africa is often considered the rape capital of the world. …And the education system is in tatters, both in terms of its instruction and availability, and in number of the provinces, the states, within South Africa.

You know, there is–this is extremely sad–a poster-child for the state of educational disarray… A little six-year old boy, who died in a pit latrine, as a result of the absence of educational supervision. And now there are a number of lawsuits against departments of education amounting to 1.5 billion Rand–that’s $150 million. And on the financial side, the government is considering suing 17 banks for the willful manipulation of the currency, the Rand, and now, as a result of the work over the last couple of years of Section 27, a human rights organization and the Treatment Action Campaign, we learn that more than 100 psychiatric patients have died as a result of offloading the patients from a hospital into community-based care, so-called, 27 organizations that were unlicensed, couldn’t look after the psychiatric patients and they died. Can you imagine the state of the healthcare system?

You know, when that happens, when a country is so besieged, it’s an opportunity for the rest of the world to engage in solidarity. Government to government. Hospital to hospital. University to university. Bring in the Commonwealth, do the kinds of things which are promising and hopeful. But of course it won’t happen. Not in this political environment. South Africa is the home of Nelson Mandela. If Nelson Mandela were alive today, he would be staggered by what’s going on in his homeland.

That was last week, I’m Stephen Lewis.