Let's Think

Creating and then destroying dreams

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Few things, if any, are crueller than to create hope in the hearts of desperate people and then have it destroyed by ‘the system’ – and it is happening in South Africa today.

Let me start my argument with a short personal testimonial illustrating how positive a ‘system’ can be if it works properly.

My earliest childhood memories are of a nomadic existence in tented road construction camps during the late 1940s/early 1950s.

My father, pulled from school at the end of grade eight because his farm worker (‘bywoner’) father could only afford his eldest son completing high school, was a construction worker on the national roads development programme.

Mom, with a matric and secretarial diploma, home-schooled Ouboet. During 1952, knowing I had to start school the next year, she told my father she did not see her way open to home-school two of us, moving from tent town to tent town.

Late that year we moved into a company cast-concrete “scheme house” in Vanderbijlpark on the Vaal River where the Iscor state corporation had opened a steel mill in 1947, the year I was born.

My father initially cycled the five kilometres or so to work and back. Before the decade was out the ‘scheme house’ became his property. Around 1960, we got our first car with which we could go on holiday at the family “down in the Cape”.

By that time the family had grown by two more boys. Of the four one became a deputy-registrar of the University of Pretoria, one a member of parliament and provincial MEC towards the end of the previous constitutional dispensation, a third was successful in the business world. The youngest tragically died in a car accident shortly after starting his working career on completion of ‘border duty’ as national serviceman.

Given the opportunity by ‘the system’ of the time, my parents by hard work and thrift turned around the fortunes of our family.

Jumping to the present

In 2013 I moved into the wonderful housing development called Melkbosch Village at Melkbosstrand. It, under a 2007 agreement between the developers and the Cape Town Metropolitan Council, includes an area reminding me of my childhood in Vanderbijlpark.

Olive Close, consisting of 100 free-standing sub-economic units, mimics my own childhood home in many ways. It was set aside specifically for disadvantaged local residents, many having been on the Council's housing list for years. Some had previously worked on farms in this area that are no longer operational, others had lived in informal housing on these farms and others had “lived in the bush” as squatters.

As my daughter and grandchildren are also living at Melkbosch Village, my family and I have made friends among the people of Olive Close, a process helped along by the fact that Melkbosch’s own high school opened within walking distance from ‘The Village’ in 2012. 

It is a wonderful experience to observe a ‘replay’ of my own family history with the opportunities afforded the people of Olive Close. They can buy the homes they now live in – and especially the dreams that come with it.

System failure

One of those families, knowing my background in politics, in desperation approached me last Monday. Part of their dream of a better life for their young daughter was in the process of being shattered.

Despite living within walking distance from the high school and despite a top final grade seven report from her primary school, she was refused entry to grade eight by the school because it was “already full”.

The mother went to the school on Monday and by accident came across the headmaster when she arrived there. He informed her that he could not help her. She explained that she lived within the school’s feeding area and had already bought school uniforms. To no avail.

She was advised to approach another high school, several kilometres away and outside whose “feeding area” they live. His argument that it can easily reached via public transport.

 Tuesday, after I had personally taken the necessary forms to the school, the headmaster refused to discuss the matter with me because I was “not the biological parent” and put the phone down in my ear.

In the meantime I have, on the advice of old political contacts, already started phoning present-day Western Cape political representatives on Monday evening. After being sent from pillar to post, I received a promise from one of them that he would to take the matter up if I e-mailed him the details, which I did.

By Wednesday morning, the first day of the new school year, there was still no feedback. The mother took off from work and I took her to the school. After an hour and a half’s wait the teacher responsible for grade eight told the mother she had to wait for ten days to see if there would be any cancellations or ‘no-pitches’. Then the school would see if it could help.

In the meantime there was still no feedback from my political contact, who on further enquiry told me he had not had time to look at his e-mails yet.

I ended up phoning the responsible education department area manager, who promised to follow up on the matter and to come back to me before the end of the day.

By Thursday there was still no feedback from anybody to either the mother or myself, while an innocent and bright young girl was starting to show serious symptoms of depression.

On another call to the area manager I was told that she had been informed by the school that the matter had been sorted out, the mother informed and the matter ticked off as “dealt with”.  On request I supplied the mother’s cell phone number for the area manager.

The manager requested the mother to go to the school again on Friday – another day off from work without pay – to enquire about the matter.

By Friday afternoon at 15:00 the girl could finally go to the school for the first time to attend a weekend grade eight camp. Monday was finally her first day in her new school uniform.

 My gripe

My main concern, and something which bugs me seriously, is that I could not find a single ‘representative of the people’ who was willing to take personal ownership of the situation. In the process the individual got lost in the crowd-approach of ‘the system’.

During the constitutional negotiations in the early1990s a small group of us who were involved lost the argument for a mix of a direct and proportional representative election system. Our fear was the loss of a direct link between representatives and those they purport to represent.

My experience with the family from Olive Close has convinced me more than ever that we were right.

In 2002, the late Frederik van Zyl Slabbert was tasked by government to chair an Electoral Task Team to formulate a new Electoral Act for South Africa. Its report to cabinet in early 2003 included draft legislation recommending a closed-list, mixed member proportional electoral system. However, the team's recommendations were never implemented.

 I think the time has come for that report to be dusted off again.

 In the meantime I am very grateful that the daughter of my friends from Olive Close could be saved from the danger of a lifelong psychological burden of feeling rejected.

Finally, if you, like me, when saying grace at the dinner table, ask God to look out for the less privileged, I think we should realise that it implies a command to ourselves.

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by Piet Coetzer

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