‘We don’t feel free at all’

Gretchen Wilson Sep 21, 2007

‘We don’t feel free at all’

Gretchen Wilson Sep 21, 2007


KAI RYSSDAL: The South African economy is growing a rate of almost 5 percent a year, and you can see signs of that prosperity in some of the major cities where new cars and high-end shops have no want of buyers.

But that 5 percent figure is averaged across the whole economy — the high end, and the low. Thirteen years after South Africa’s first fully democratic elections, the economic boom still hasn’t trickled down to the poorest communities.

Gretchen Wilson reports from Holomisa, South Africa.

GRETCHEN WILSON: More than four million South Africans live in shacks without electricity or plumbing. Some are tired of waiting for government services, and they’re taking to the streets in increasingly violent protests around the country.

Three weeks ago in Soweto, police fired rubber bullets at demonstrators in a protest over housing. The protestors sang: “It’s bad but we’ll continue fighting for our rights — even if they shoot us.”

SIPHAMANDLA ZONDI: There’s a time bomb for us.

Siphamandla Zondi is with the Institute for Global Dialogue. He points out that despite South Africa’s growth, 40 percent of adults still can’t find jobs. The World Bank says the income gap here is among the highest in the world. It’s created a tinderbox.

ZONDI: Under those conditions of affluence juxtaposed to abject poverty, you cannot relax.

Zondi says this popular unrest isn’t new — it was common in other African nations after independence. And it’s been the catalyst for both unscrupulous dictators and democratic opposition movements.

When the ruling African National Congress, or ANC, doesn’t deliver here in South Africa, other parties move in. In Holomisa, a hundred miles south of Johannesburg, the United Democratic Movement has made big inroads. Matanzima Mokoena is local official with that party. He says economic freedom hasn’t come with democracy.

MATANZIMA MOKOENA: If you are in freedom, you must get job. You must get proper infrastructures. But in this government, it’s very slow!

The ANC government says it’s going as fast as it can. The money’s there, and it’s already built two million basic houses, or 500 a day. Government officials say the neglect was so great under apartheid that they’re trying to go from zero to 60 in a way that few governments ever have.

In some towns, people are impatient. They’re fed up with local corruption, bribery and nepotism. In July, protestors in Holomisa vandalized and set fire to this municipal building. Then some demonstrators kept going – to the house of a local ANC councilor. They stoned him to death in front of his neighbors and children. A neighbor remembers what it was like.

NEIGHBOR: TThey didn’t have to kill somebody for service rendered. Because they were supposed to talk with him first. Not to kill, not to kill. It’s so sad, every time I think about it, I just want to cry. Silence.

Between these bouts of violence, most days are mundane but difficult. Elsie Gambu is washing dishes. She’s made her shack of scavenged rusty tin siding, old curtains, and tarps. She says economically little has changed since the end of apartheid.

ELSIE GAMBU: We don’t feel free at all. The government is not working for us. We don’t feel free at all.

Gambu says she doesn’t care about politics. All she knows is that she hasn’t shared in her country’s prosperity.

GAMBU: The situation right here, it makes us very, feeling very down and lost in the middle of nowhere. Like, no one cares about us. No one thinks about us. You know?

In Holomisa, South Africa, I’m Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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