This week we mark a milestone in the commemoration of 28 years since our liberation from the clutches of an illegitimate administration in terms of whose racist policies the native majority were balkanised along ethnic lines and pushed out of mainland South Africa into so-called self-governing homelands where they led a hopeless life in abject poverty.
We emerged out of the make-or-break CODESA talks as a country on a path to transformation, pinning our hopes on an agreement among the negotiating parties that there should be a universal adult suffrage; constitutional rather than parliamentary supremacy; judicial independence; equality before the law; and a bill of rights enshrining civil liberties.
In addition, the government that was waiting in the wings to usher in the new era was going to develop and implement public policies that sought to give effect to the bill of rights, with a view to closing the gap between those who were privileged and those who lived in deprivation under apartheid.
These were policies that were going to bring about development and social justice to the majority of the inhabitants of the country in the form of access to sanitation, clean water, healthcare, electricity, housing, quality education and land, among other things.
All of these formed the spine of the interim constitution of 1993 and were to be maintained in the final constitution on 1996. And so, by the time we voted in our thousands on April 27, 1994, we already knew where we stood as a country when it came to the rule of law, human rights and governance. Our lifelong aspirations as an oppressed people were about to be realised and to say we were optimistic for the future would be to put it mildly.
The milestone we are about to celebrate therefore presents an opportunity for us to reflect on the road we have travelled up to this point and to make a frank assessment of how we have fared in ensuring a better life for those who were previously at an unfair disadvantage.
Progress has been made
At the outset, it is important to acknowledge that, by and large, today is better than yesterday. Official data from Statistics South Africa’s (Stats SA) 2020 General Household Survey is instructive in this regard.
According to the figures in question, in 2020, 89.1 percent of households had access to improved water sources, with 46.6 percent enjoying access to piped water in their dwellings. Only four percent relied on streams, rivers, pools and dams.
In addition, between 83.4 percent and 97.3 percent of households countrywide were connected to the main electricity supply whereas, in 2002, a province such as the Eastern Cape had only 55.3 percent of its population connected to the grid.
While the Human Settlements Department reported in 2019 that the government had built 3.2 million RDP houses between 1994 and 2018, a commendable effort given that property ownership by native South Africans in white-only areas was outlawed under apartheid, Stats SA figures revealed 84 percent of South African households lived in formal dwellings.
Further, 64.9 percent of households had access to flushing toilets whereas 83.2 percent enjoyed access to improved sanitation, with less than a percentage point lacking access to sanitation facilities. Some 14.1 percent of households used pit latrines which did not have a ventilation pipe.
Moreover, the percentage of persons who have matric as their highest level of education rose from 21.3 percent in 2002 to 36 percent in 2020 while 72 percent of the households normally relied on public health care facilities.
Regarding income, salaries remained the main source of income for most households at 50.8 percent nationally while grants were the main source of income for 28.8 percent of households. Dependency on grants was especially high the Eastern Cape and Limpopo.
Although, as the data suggests, the government has, in general terms, made significant inroads in bringing about development, it is also true that a considerable number of people are still left behind and thus have yet to taste the proverbial fruits of freedom. Some within this group find themselves trapped in such undesirable conditions as a direct result of maladministration.
For instance, a South African Human Rights Commission told a conference on racism last June that 64 percent of black South Africans like in poverty as compared to a percentage point and six percent of their white, and Indian and Asian counterparts. This suggest that.
Public Protector’s investigations
As an independent constitutional institution with a mandate to investigate, report on and appropriately remedy any alleged or suspected improper or prejudicial conduct in all state affairs or the public administration, in any sphere of government, we are exposed to evidence of this virtually every single work day of our lives.
Many of the 58 964 investigations that we have finalised out of the 60 962 the public entrusted us with since I assumed office in October 2016 bear testimony to this reality. More of that evidence can also be found in some of the 412 investigation reports we have churned out in the same period.
Many of the complaints that gave rise to these investigations reached us through the 2 372 public education activities we held in that exact period as we went out of our way to take services to the doorsteps of grassroots communities as part of our implementation of the Public Protector Vision 2023 — an ambitious, eight-pillared master plan in terms of which we have decidedly sought to see to it that our services to reach communities in the outlying and neglected parts of the country.
Through this vision, we seek to broaden access to services; engage linguistic communities in their mother tongue; spread our footprint; and leverage stakeholder relations through entering into agreements that will give effect to cooperation in this regard.
In addition, we strive to project the image of a safe haven for the marginalised; empower people with information and knowledge about their rights; persuade organs of state to establish effective in-house complaint-resolution mechanisms; and ultimately inspire people to be their own liberators.
Grassroot level struggle
A typical face of the grassroots communities we refer to is Ms Lindiswa Mali of the Eastern Cape. Hers is a classic case of people in whose face the door of transformation was shut. She has remained ensnared in that place when most people have long crossed over into the dispensation of equal opportunity, improved quality of life and a freed potential of each person.
She turned to my office through her daughter, Asanda, in July 2019, alleging that she had been waiting nearly 20 years for her RDP house, which the provincial Human Settlements department and the Buffalo City Metro already approved as far back as 2002 to be built on ERF number 7648 in Khayelitsha, Dimbaza.
Our investigation confirmed that, indeed, the department and the Buffalo City Metro failed to provide Ms. Mali with the much-needed roof over hers head and family’s head. This was despite her regularly showing up at the municipality’s doorstep to seek questions on when her turn to reap the fruits of freedom would come. Each time, over two decades, she would retrace her steps home dejected.
Fielding questions from our investigators, departmental officials conceded that the house at ERF number 7648 in Khayelitsha, Dimbaza belonged to Ms. Mali. The housing subsidy portal reflected her as the approved beneficiary.
When we finalised the case two months ago, we directed the head of the department to ensure that Ms Mali is given lawful occupation of an approved RDP house within 180 days of the date of the report. This should be in addition to a written apology.
Though we have made findings and taken remedial action in her favour, the investigation report is cold comfort for her. Worse, she has grown distrustful of any coming out of the mouth of state functionaries. Sadly, Ms. Mali’s case is but one example of people who still yearn for the fruits of freedom.
Many other people find themselves in the same place as her if not in worse conditions. Our recent systemic investigation into conditions 16 public health care facilities in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces are yet another example.
Our tour of provinces over a month ago as part of a stakeholder roadshow — during which we observed first-hand how residents of the N2 Gateway Flats in Langa, Cape Town live with the indignity of having to step over human excrement each time they enter or leave their houses due to a defective plumbing system — also served as a stark reminder of this reality.
That people have been crammed into tiny multiple-story flats is itself an indictment on us because we have not covered ourselves in glory when it comes to addressing apartheid’s spatial planning and on land agrarian reform. The slow pace of land redistribution and our epic failure to put in place a policy that can redress the grave imbalance that characterises land ownership are well documented.
These realities further push the inequality wedge between the rich and the poor with no hope of the situation being reversed anytime soon, if at all.
Incidentally, the N2 Gateway Flats are government-provided. Like Ms. Mali, residents told my team and I during an inspection in loco that their cries had fallen on deaf ears. It remains to be seen if the undertakings of the mayor, who was at hand during the inspection, will bring about change.
While we understand that the legacy of a system that was in force for centuries when one includes the equally exclusionist regime that preceded apartheid will not be wiped off over night, we are of the strong view that we would have been in a far better place but for maladministration.
As we celebrate Freedom Day and the progress registered since our breakthrough, let us also acknowledge our failures. Above all, let us summon the spirit of hope and optimism that reigned supreme back then and soak it up to do right by the multitudes including Ms. Mali and the dwellers of the N2 Gateway Flats for whom real freedom remains elusive.
*Adv. Mkhwebane is the Public Protector of South Africa