Treasonous, dangerous and…..democracy?

I have often defended the ANC, or at least tried to understand where they are coming from, but this latest stunt has got me a little wound up…..

Last week an almighty row flared up in South Africa between the ruling party (the African National Congress) and the First National Bank (FNB) who are one of the biggest banks in the country. FNB had released an advert on TV as part of their ‘You can help’ campaign which seeks to ‘inspire all South Africans to work together by helping one another’. The advert was a series of children and young people talking about their hopes for South Africa and the future.

So what was the problem?

You would have thought that this would be fairly unproblematic, indeed some might have viewed it as a good way in which one of the biggest banks in the country was seeking to engage in social issues as part of a corporate social responsibility strategy.

However this is not how it has gone down. Unfortunately a number of the children’s comments were adjudged to have implicitly criticised the government as the children asked for,  among other things, an end to corruption and people voting for the “same government” while hoping for change.  One young person questioned the decision to spend money on the improvements to President Zumas Nkandla home whilst another called the Basic Education Minister  Angie Motshegka ‘brainless’ in light of a scandal last year which saw some schools in Limpopo province go a whole school year with no textbooks.

What was the reaction?

Unsurprisingly the ANC did not accept the adverts lying down. The party’s spokesman, Jackson Mthembu, stated that ‘the ANC, its leadership and government (are) under attack on a commercial masqueraded as youth views,” and that “What is of concern to the ANC is that the advert content is an undisguised political statement that makes random and untested accusations against our government in the name of discourse.

“FNB must desist from using school kids to make political statements in a manner that is disrespectful to elders and that disregard sacrifices made in the 18 years of democratic government.” The party then went onto argue that the clips had a negative impact on business confidence and could undermine the promotion of investment into the country and that it was ‘strongly raising a question why the organisation should continue to bank with a bank that has adopted an oppositional (sic) stance to it.”

“The ANC indicated that its leadership and membership were strongly raising a question why the organisation should continue to bank with a bank that has adopted an oppositional (sic) stance to it.”

The ANC Youth League called FNB’s campaign “an obviously lame attempt to recreate an Arab Spring”. The youth league said children were used in advertisements to make “unproven claims” and drive an “undoubtedly treasonous agenda”. They also at one point suggested that the adverts amounted to ‘child abuse’.

The ANC Women’s League called on FNB to apologise for the “offensive and politically biased advertisements”. “It is concerning that a financial institution holds such strong political views and it is clear from the content of these adverts that FNB has a distinct antigovernment stance,” the Women’s League said in a statement.

What has happened since?

What is one of the most surprising things about this case is how quickly the bank have capitulated and given in. Within a day the adverts were off air and a leaked SMS message from the bank CEO Sizwe Nxasana to the Basic Education Minister read;

“Good Morning Minister. I have instructed FNB to remove the video clips from their website this morning. I will investigate how and why the clips ended [up] on their website. Sincere apologies for this. Sizwe,”.

Leading figures and oppositional parties have been quick to criticise the banks retreat, as well as the initial ANC reaction. University of Free State vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen posted on Facebook: “I am deeply disappointed by FNB for running to apologise/explain to a political party for airing the voices of children. Does FNB realise how much blood was spilt for the right to say what you think? I fear for my country,” he posted on Saturday.

Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille tweeted on Saturday: “Saying that #FNB caved in order to protect the kids in the advert is a more devastating statement on the ANC govt than anything the ad said.”

Why is this whole thing important?

Were FNB trying to make a political statement? I don’t know. Even if they were I don’t think it required this level of reaction.

I have been particularly irritated/enraged by this whole saga for a couple of reasons. Firstly as someone who has worked in, and is doing a PhD in, youth and development the idea that young people’s voices can be not only dismissed, but redefined as being ‘treasonous’ is beyond infuriating. And the idea that young people expressing their views, and in doing so exhibiting the ability to think critically and reflectively about their country and government, is only possible as a result of political manipulation and ‘abuse’ is quite frankly mind blowing. It is important to remember that this is the same government which has not only publicly declared that young people are the ‘future’ but have also set out a detailed strategic plan for how young people can and must become more involved in national development. Their whole response to this advert certainly raises questions of the ability to undertake this commitment in any meaningful way.

Secondly, this saga touched on a nerve and sense of unease which has been growing in me since I arrived in September around the role of disagreement and space for oppositional politics, in any shape or form, in the country.  Conversations with colleagues, friends and those in the communities where I am doing my research quickly reveal the way in which this lack of space is found at multiple levels. From the national executive where it is clear that those who do not endorse the dominant presidential line are quickly ‘manouvered’ out of the way, to the local level where even youth councils are elected in such a way as to make them another arm of the political machinery. Rather than being spaces for potential alternative views they become another way for the ANC to control the narrative.

In a recent conversation with a friend they became very angry when I asked them about recent comments from the opposition party about the textbook scandal mentioned above. Their anger was not because they thought that the criticism in itself was wrong, but rather it was the manner in which it had been done that was problematic. It was ‘not their place’ to criticise and to ‘humiliate’ the government. Rather they should show by ‘doing’ and rather help the government to correct the situation.

I do think that an element of this is protectionism towards the ANC. This is the party which fought in the struggle, which people sacrificed their lives for and ultimately gave the majority of the population the vote not that long ago. As such the party represents something which most South Africans are fiercely proud of and for many an attack on the ANC is seen as an attack on their own identity and everything that they fought for during apartheid.

But beyond that I think there is a deeper need to understand the role of disagreement and ‘oppositional politics’ within South African society. Democracy has not emerged naturally here, but like elsewhere across Africa has been implemented from the top-down on a completely different social structure based on a Western idea. And no, I’m not saying it is wrong, but only that we need to think about these issues to try to understand what is going on.

The recent history of South Africa has also played a key role in shaping South African’s ability to disagree with each other. Pre-1994 political disagreement was quite often a question of life or death. Is it therefore surprising that people are reluctant to, or struggling to, suddenly allow open debate in political and social life?

I was caught in a rather heated debate in a spazza shop today between two young men, one defending the ANC and the other, although an ANC member (‘till I die’) who was questioning as to whether ‘freedom’ would be better achieved through fuller and more open democratic debate, or whether ‘freedom’ could only be achieved through all getting behind the ANC to do what they had to do. After 45 minutes I have to admit I lost track of the conversation but what was becoming clear was that for many the ‘freedom’ promised by the ANC comes first and democracy second.

This might seem strange to many but if you had spent your entire life under a regime which systematically oppressed and devalued your existence you may think twice about allowing new and oppositional voices to the one which ‘set you free’ into the ring. Whilst the narrative of a ‘new free and democratic South Africa’ was a powerful image in 1994 I’m not sure that a real understanding of what that might mean, and what it might look like in a post-ANC era is being, or has been discussed within the political sphere (I’m sure there are probably hundreds of academic papers on it gathering dust in a library somewhere….)

Anyway, I’m not entirely sure that all of this makes sense even to me but it is both fascinating, and also sadly disheartening.  We should not forget that South Africa is a young democracy, and it will take time to develop and mature. The transition to democratic rule will take longer than the change in the constitution – it is both a legal and psychological process. But in order for this transition to take place there has to be a safe space where the ruling party and policies can be critically examined, objected to, or even endorsed. As someone who works with young people I know how important the next generation will be in doing this and can only hope that this whole saga isn’t truly representative of the government’s feelings towards its young people.

I should be clear though, by no means am I suggesting that the country is becoming an autocratic one party state. Nor am I excusing their behaviour by trying to understand it. Rather it is to draw attention to the need to begin to address these issues. South Africa is held up by man as as a leader for Africa not only in terms of economics, but also governance, and therefore these  spaces for reflective and critical thinking about the nation and what it means to everyone must be developed for everyone, not just members of the ANC.

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Reflections of an overland trucker

Guest blog by Dan Gilby

Spend any time travelling in Africa and the chances are you will see a large overland truck transporting tourists across the continent. In fact, if you’re travelling in Africa you may well be on one of these trucks. From Nairobi to Cape Town, Johannesburg to Cairo and beyond these trucks criss-cross the continent providing tourists, particularly western tourists, with a cost effective, safe and relatively quick means of visiting Africa.

I recently spent three weeks on an overland truck travelling from Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe to Cape Town in South Africa. My experiences on this truck led to some interesting reflections which I thought it would be good to capture in a blog post. Although I’m blogging regularly about my travels, the conclusions I’ve reached felt more suited to this blog.

What is an overland truck?

Generally speaking, overland trucks are 25-30 seater trucks, which enable tour companies to offer tourists a means of covering large distances across Africa in short spaces of time. They are designed to be able to cope with the tough African roads and are equipped to carry all the tents, cooking equipment and other resources you need on this sort of journey. They are generally staffed by an African crew, made up of a tour leader, cook, and driver. Itineraries range from a few days to a couple of months in length and with the range of companies operating, you can probably find an overland truck leaving major cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg, Nairobi and Livingstone almost every day of the week, all year round. Each day of the trip is set out clearly when booking, with most of the accommodation in campsites along the route, usually equipped with a swimming pool, bar and internet access.

Nomad_truck_550k

Why did I take an overland truck?

From my arrival in Nairobi in October, I’d travelled independently across Tanzania and Zambia to get as far as Victoria Falls, so why did I choose an overland truck for the next leg of my journey?

Essentially it was because I was travelling on my own and my journey through Botswana and Namibia would prove difficult to do independently. While I could have travelled much of the distance on private coaches, it would have proved difficult (or at least very expensive) to do any of the excursions en route such as the Okavango Delta, Chobe National Park and Etosha National Park which make visiting Botswana and Namibia so worthwhile. Therefore, based on advice from others who had travelled this route and having consulted various guide books, I chose to book a three week trip from Victoria Falls to Cape Town.

GACF_overland-cape-to-falls

Why do I normally travel independently?

For me, the joy of travelling comes when I arrive in a new town or city and step into a new environment to face whatever challenges that may bring. Finding a hostel to stay in, haggling with a pushy taxi driver, getting used to a new currency, establishing where you might be able to get a cheap but tasty meal – these are the basic elements of travelling in new countries that excite me as much as the breathtaking scenery or meeting new people.  Travelling on your own only increases this feeling as you don’t have someone familiar to turn to when you’re not sure which way to turn, and it also pushes you to engage with the people around you, whether they be locals or other travellers. And whilst there are undoubtedly downsides to this (getting lost, getting ripped off, being a target of thieves or being followed down the street by someone who wants to sell you a trip/curio are particularly common) I don’t think this is particularly unique to Africa and is also something that can be relatively easily managed by exercising a little caution and common sense.

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The overland truck experience

It was therefore perhaps inevitable that I found travelling on an overland truck very different to my usual experience of travelling independently. Without the independence and uncertainty of the first part of my travels in Africa, I found it easy to become swept along by the daily routine of the truck – getting up at a specific time announced the night before, jumping on the truck to be driven to the next destination, and then getting off at the other end to again to be told where and when to be for that afternoon’s activities. You can quickly lose your sense of self-control and independence and the sense of being on some sort of extreme school trip can develop.

I also found that the experience became very time focused, with lots of discussion about what time we’d get up, what time we’d leave, and how long it would take to get somewhere. My experience of travelling in Africa up to this point had taught me that time was a more subjective concept here, and that patience was perhaps the most useful resource you could have.  The concept of ‘Africa time’ will be well known to anyone who has travelled in Africa before, but it didn’t seem to fit comfortably with the overland truck experience. My fellow travellers often became frustrated at small delays or commitments on time not being honoured, even when only 15 minutes or so was lost. For me, having experienced ‘Africa time’ on my trip already and having come away travelling to get away from London and the daily concerns of late trains or slow restaurant service, I found the level of impatience with such delays unnecessary a lot of the time. To me ‘Africa time’ should not be taken as an excuse for poor service or unacceptable delays, but at the same time it is a reflection on the tough nature of life in Africa and something to be embraced and accepted, rather than a statement on the punctuality of African people or their attitude to western tourists.

Most interestingly for me, I was the only person among the group of 12 travellers on the truck, who had travelled for any significant length of time in Africa away from an overland truck. Others had travelled from Nairobi or Johannesburg on other overland trucks with the same company and would be flying out of Cape Town within a few days of arriving. When meeting my fellow travellers and explaining that I had travelled on my own from Nairobi, the reaction was one of surprise and even a little amazement that I managed to make this journey on my own. They seemed not to have considered undertaking their journey in Africa independently, despite the fact that many of them had previously travelled independently in Europe, South America and Asia.

So what is it about Africa that sends western tourists scurrying for the safety of an overland truck? Is it a rational and sensible response to the inherent dangers of travelling within this often challenging and somewhat chaotic continent? Or does it limit the experience of travelling here, affect the interactions you have with the people and places you visit, and reinforce the sense of it being too dangerous for any other form of travel?

For perhaps understandable reasons, our crew often warned us to look out for our valuables, that campsites were sometimes visited by thieves from the local village, and to stick to the area immediately around the supermarket when stopping off in a town. All good advice perhaps, but something which risked reinforcing pre-conceived ideas about Africa. I look after my valuables wherever I travel (and at home too for that matter) so while I understand the need for tour companies to spell out all the possible dangers (if only to avoid accusations of insufficient warnings if something untoward were to happen), I did wonder if the sense of danger that this engenders only serves to reinforce current and future travellers use of overland trucks as well as to only further widen the distance between those inside the ‘safety’ of the truck and the ‘dangerous’ other outside it.

From what I saw and experienced on the truck, there is a risk that travelling through Africa solely on an overland truck can turn your experience into one long safari, with Africa one big game park to explore from behind a locked door and glass windows through which you tentatively poke out a camera. This is admittedly something of an exaggeration, but this feeling of passing through Africa at a distance rather than truly experiencing it nagged away at me throughout my time on the truck. My fellow travellers (all good people who I got on well with) seemed quick to make generalisations about the people and places they were seeing, something which I found difficult as we were passing across huge areas, spanning many different cultures, languages, and social norms.

There is therefore an extent to which, in my view at least, travelling on an overland truck can restrict your experience of Africa and give you a limited perspective of the places you visit. At the same time, I wouldn’t like to pretend that my own experience when travelling independently is significantly more ‘real’ (see Rachel’s blog post about what does or doesn’t constitute the ‘real Africa’). I have largely stuck to more touristy areas, relied on guide books, and travelled relatively quickly between major cities and tourist centres. However, I do feel that stepping out of your comfort zone, interacting with local people and eating, sleeping, and travelling in the way that local people do for at least some of your trip is an important part of any visit, and is something which I have managed to do far more effectively away from the overland truck.

So perhaps it comes down to personal preference on how one travels, which of course I fully respect. Many people will come to Africa for a short two week holiday and won’t have time for the more adventurous experience (and risk of delays and other problems) which for me is part and parcel of my much longer seven month travel experience. If the overland truck companies enable people who might otherwise avoid travelling across Africa to come to this fascinating, complex continent then that has to be a positive. However, it is important that such trips are undertaken with a level of self-awareness of the nature of the experience you are having, and with some resistance to making significant conclusions about the countries you visit (however you chose to travel through them) for risk of jumping to ill-informed judgements, particularly when these are based upon little engagement with people from that country or community outside of the dominant visitor/visited paradigm.

Whether on a truck or not, the most important thing is to be open to the experience of travelling, talk to as many people as you can and take a few (well-calculated) risks. Doing so will enable you to get away from the comfort and safety of more western styles of travel and as such will open you up to a richer, albeit sometimes more challenging, experience.

 

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And so it begins…

For those of you back at home in the UK the opening today of the African National Congress (ANC) Conference in Mangaung won’t have registered, but here in South Africa the build up to this conference has been a consistent feature of the news since the day I arrived back in September.

Given its significance, beyond solely South Africa, I thought I would provide a quick guide to what is actually going on for those back home that are interested. I should add however that, like all political systems, South African politics is complex and if in my attempt to simplify slightly if I have missed anything out or made any mistakes I’m sorry!

 So what actually is Mangaung?

The party conference occurs every five years and, amongst other things, sees the party delegates elect their executive committee for the next five years. These positions are the President, Deputy President, National Chairperson, Secretary General, Deputy Secretary General and Treasurer General

zuma

Jacob Zuma is the current President who is seeking re-election.

Why does it matter?

Well it matters for a number of reasons. Firstly, barring something unbelievably monumental it is highly likely that the ANC will win the next general election in 2014 and therefore whoever wins will be the next country President and will be in power until 2019. It is therefore not surprising that most South Africans, ANC voters or not, have at least some vested interest in how it turns out.

Secondly it matters for the rest of the African continent. Although South Africa has suffered the effects of the global recession in recent years it is still very much a leader on the African continent with the biggest economy and an undeniable political clout. For example it was only earlier on this year that (current) President Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife Noksazana Dlamini-Zuma  was elected head of the African Union Commission after being heavily pushed by South Africa, against fierce competition from incumbent Jean Ping who was supported by much of Francophone Africa.

Thirdly it matters for the ANC as a party. In power since 1994 the party which fought against apartheid is increasingly finding itself torn apart by internal corruption and factionalism, whilst also facing criticism from the population for what is perceived to be slow progress in development. The ANC is one of the oldest, and most recognised African political parties on the continent and how it deals with these issues will be critical both in terms of the party’s legitimacy both within the country and internationally.

A bit of background to the conference

South Africa hasn’t really had the best couple of years politically or economically as a recent Economist article pointed out highlighting the slowing growth rate, decreasing foreign investment and poor performance in many social indicators such as education (South Africa was recently rated 132nd out of 144 by the World Economic Forum for primary education).

coverThe article which has now become infamous in South Africa

Whilst some have argued against the points made in the article more of the criticism has been focused on the tone rather than the content (patronising, unhelpful etc). Many in South Africa are all too aware of some of the key challenges the country faces and the Marikana mining disaster in August this year, during which the South African Police Service opened fire on striking mineworkers at a Lomin mine killing 34 miners on one day, the worst day of such violence since the Sharpeville massacre under apartheid, has futher highlighted some of the tensions and issues which the government faces in an ever-changing country.

Aside from the social and economic issues some of South Africa’s politicians haven’t exactly helped themselves. In particular the current president, Jacob Zuma, has found himself the subject of numerous corruption allegations (he has been charged in the past with the charges dropped under less than transparent circumstances). The most recent scandal to hit was when it was alleged that millions of taxpayers money was being used to fund upgrades to his homestead in his home town (dubbed KwaZulu-Natal’s Disney Land). This then escalated when opposition leader Helen Zille tried to ‘march’ to the homestead but was refused access. Again this escalated even further when Zille referred to this building as a compound, a term that was used and remains associated with apartheid, which then led to accusations of racist language.

Add to this suspicion around what has been dubbed a ‘Secrecy Bill’ which will see anyone who releases/uses classified information publicly facing an automatic jail term, even when it can be proved that it is in the public interest as well as recent incidents where it appears as though political interference has resulted in the withdrawl of media deemed ‘offensive’ to the president and you have a very unsettled political climate.

We should also not forget (well, I certainly can’t) that Zuma is the guy who has spoken openly about knowingly having unprotected sex with a HIV+ woman (who he was actually accused of raping and was then acquitted) and when questioned in court said that he took a shower post-sex as a form of protection. All while he was head of the national AIDS commission.

Given his colourful past you may ask how it is that Zuma ended up as President and for this you have to go back to 2007, and to the last ANC conference which was held at Polokwane. It was at this conference that long-term fractions within the party came to the fore as incumbent ANC President, and President of South Africa at the time, Thabo Mbeki was unceremoniously ousted by Zuma and his supporters. In what was a bit of a shock election Mbeki found himself no longer party president in what was the first time a position had been contested in the nearly 100 years of ANC history. To make matters worse (for Mbeki) whilst officially he was expected to carry on as country President till the next general election in 2009 he was then ‘fired’ from the party in 2008[1], leaving a space open for Zuma to enter.

How does the Mangaung process work?

In order to be re-elected at Mangaung, Zuma first needs to be nominated which is a process which reaches from the local branches and started many months ago. Firstly each branch of the ANC throughout the country has a meeting to decide who they would like to nominate for each of the positions on the executive committee. These branches them come together at the provincial level and each province (there are 9 in South Africa) as a whole puts forward who they would like to nominate for each post. For example the Eastern Cape have nominated Zuma as President whilst Limpopo have nominated current deputy Kgalema Motlanthe. People do not put themselves forward to be nominated, they have to come from the branches.

This process is far from smooth with allegations of corruption being made at both the branch and provincial level. Just to give you a taste I was recently sat in a taxi listening to the radio as they talked about the Limpopo nomination meeting at which the list of delegates who were at the meeting and able to vote had been stolen in the morning only to reappear in the evening. This led many Zuma supporters to claim that the list had been doctored (everything is done on paper rather than electronically – in order to reduce the risk of manipulation ironically) and many walked out and Montlanthe was nominated. Whilst all of this was being spoken about the taxi driver next to me just shook his head with painful resignation and muttered something in Xhosa which I shall not repeat (he didn’t realise I understood him and was mortified when I told him I did!).

Alongside each province the ANC youth league and the Women’s league also get to put forward their own nominations (the first of which is a whole other blog post in itself). Once these have all been done these nominations go forward to the conference where each of those nominated either accepts their nomination and runs for the post, or declines it.

Once at the conference the final vote on each of the positions is cast by the delegates who are there with each province sending a certain number of delegates. This number is decided no in terms of population but rather in terms of ANC membership. Those provinces with the larger ANC membership will have more delegates at the conference. And the final decision lies with the Secretary General who decides which branches can, and cannot send delegates with often those in good standing being offered more spaces. This last point is important as it highlights some of the ethnic dimensions of the political process which come into play.

Traditionally the Eastern Cape has been the heartland of the ANC producing many of it’s leaders such as Mandela, Walter Sislu, Oliver Tambo and most recently Thabo Mbeki, all of whom were isiXhosa. This has meant that usually the Eastern Cape has the highest number of delegates. Zuma is isiZulu and at this conference the highest number of delegates will be coming from his home province of Kwazulu-Natal which has seen an increase in ANC membership in recent years, likely attributable to Zuma’s leadership. Conversely the membership of the Eastern Cape has decreased. This means that the largest say about whether Zuma will continue to be in power is with his own supporters.

Can anyone challenge Zuma?

This is the question that everyone has been asking. The only likely candidate that was put forward was Kgalema Motlanthe but until two days ago it wasn’t clear whether he would accept his nomination or not. But he has which means that there is at least going to be a contest. How much of a contest it is not yet clear although few seem to think that he stands any real chance.

Kgalema-Motlanthe-31-May.jpgCan Motlanthe pose a serious challenge?

If this whole post seems a little lacking in policy this isn’t me just being lazy, but rather reflects what appears to be a dominance of personality and popularity over what it is that each candidate represents. This may be in part due to the fact that, as contenders do not accept their nomination till very close to the conference, there is no time or space for them to establish a policy platform for themselves. Rather the papers are filled with stories of who will side with whom[2].

What do South African’s think?

In my no way representative discussions with my South African friends and colleagues there are two things that have really stood out:

1. People are getting sick with the old guard leadership of the ANC and the personality politics which dominates. They are tired and are looking for a new generation of leaders to take the party forward but as yet don’t see this coming from anywhere.

2. This will not stop them voting for the ANC or at least will not lead them to vote for the opposition as it currently stands. Whilst the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance Party, has made major gains in recent years including taking control of the Western Province,  to many it is still not seen as a viable party either because it is too ‘white’ and the idea of a white leader (albeit a very liberal one) is still too difficult, or, because what black members there are within the DA are seen to be from the emerging middle class which is still alien to much of the black population.

But I guess what makes me really sad is the number of people, particularly young people, who I have spoken to say that in the next election they just won’t vote. They cannot bring themselves to vote for the ANC leaders as they are, yet can’t see themselves voting for someone else. This sense of resignation, less than 20 years after the first every free elections, is both heartbreaking and a sorry reflection of how people are starting to feel about the party which once led them to freedom.


[1] He was ‘recalled’ as it was adjudged that he had used corruption charges against Zuma for political means when he had fired him as Deputy President in 2005. Mbeki has consistently denied this and the corruption cloud over Zuma continues to loiter.

[2] There isn’t space to go into all of the possible King Makers here but key names to look out for are Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale amongst many others

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Benefits and stigma in Britain today – a new report!

So this summer I was lucky enough to work on a project looking at benefit stigma in Britain and the final report of this is out today – cue much excitement from my little house in Cape Town 🙂

Whilst not obviously linked to my PhD (well, kind of not really at all!) anyone who knows me will know that I have a keen interest in these debates both on and intellectual level, (I am a social policy student after all) and a personal level, having had friends and family members impacted by issues to do with disability in recent years.  Indeed, anyone who has had the (unfortunate) experience to have been in earshot of me when this topic is being discussed will be well aware of how passionately I feel about the issue. In fact, I think it was being subjected to several of these late night ‘discussions’ in LSE public houses which led my friend Ben asking me if I wanted to be part of the project, and of course I jumped at the chance.

The report set out to investigate the stigma attached to claiming benefits in Britain today using a mixed methods approach which included a survey (conducted in May2012), focus groups with a range of claimants and non-claimants, analysis of pre-existing survey data, and an analysis of articles about benefits in national newspapers from 1995 to 2011.

Now obviously I think everyone should read the report, or at least the Executive Summary, but I know how busy people are so here are the condensed key findings:

  • The public vastly overestimated the numbers of people ‘claiming falsely’ or ‘committing fraud’.
  • 1 in 5 people believe a majority of claims are false, while 14% believe a majority of claims are fraudulent. The Government’s own statistics indicate an actual fraud rate of around 1%.
  • The public now see claimants as less deserving than they did 20 years ago, with noticeable shifts in opinion in the late 1990s and early 2000s
  • Evidence was found to support the idea that negative media coverage is linked to stigma – with people who read more stigmatising newspapers perceiving higher levels of fraud and greater personal stigma
  • Both a national survey and use of focus groups demonstrated that stigma is impacting on both take up of tax credits and benefits. Many are making a choice whether to ‘heat or eat’ because of a deep-seated sense of shame at the prospect of claiming
  • Non-take up of benefits has risen concurrently with stigma.

Why does this matter?

Well it matters for lots of reasons, but here of a few.

Firstly, the political and public landscape is constantly being bombarded with figures and  stories about benefits, fraud and stigma – particularly around disability benefits. Not only is this often unhelpful and misleading, but it can also be damaging. This means that actual, rigorous and transparent evidence is crucial. I have lost count of the number of times I have spotted statistics or a story in the press which, having then followed it up, has left me infuriated through its misrepresentation. (For a masterclass in how to unpick benefit statistics read this post by Ben from last year) Indeed one of the key findings outlined above is just how vastly people over estimate the numbers of people ‘claiming falsely’ or ‘committing fraud’. The only way to start to tackle this issue is by highlighting these discrepancies and to begin talking about why they occur and what can be done about them.

Which leads me on to point number two. We should not expect the public to be expert statisticians, nor should we expect them to have the time to spend hours trying to work out what all of these statistics and stories actually mean. The media and politicians also have a key role in shaping public discussion and as such need to act (and talk) responsibly. This includes providing full details of data that they are using, and not just picking on sensational, atypical statistics and cases which will grab headlines, something which the Guardian has picked upon today. Whilst some might say this is wishful thinking the report recommends that the UK Statistics Authority consider two sets of changes to the Code of Practice for Statistics, not least making public providers of official and ad hoc statistics accept responsibility for predictable and repeated media misinterpretations and acting to correct these.

Thirdly, it shows that there are more productive ways of talking about benefits. Believe it or not even a left-wing, guardian-reading liberal type like me doesn’t like to see money ‘wasted’ through spending where it isn’t needed. But I don’t think stigmatising entire sectors of the population is helpful.  It is unlikely to impact on the minority of people who are claiming falsely but, as the report highlights, can and does have a huge impact on those who are on benefits, not out of choice, but because they happen to be in a position in life where they need some help. As the report points out, we need to move away from focusing on the individual characteristics of people and making judgements on their moral standing, to look at some the broader issues behind benefit receipt  – such as the significant employment penalties experienced by disabled people.

Finally, it matters because ultimately benefits matter. For many people they matter a lot. They are there for a reason and no-one should be made to feel ashamed to claim something to which they are entitled. People have a human right to live dignified lives and sometimes I think that, in amongst all the headlines, figures and statistics, the human element of this discussion can get lost. People on benefits are people too and deserve to be treated with the same respect as those of us fortunate enough to be healthy and with enough income to support ourselves.

Anyway, enough verbal diarrhoea for a Tuesday evening. I shall leave the final word to the late Peter Townsend who was a Professor at the LSE (I was lucky enough to have been taught by him when I was doing my masters). In 1962 he wrote a book called The Last Refuge looking at residential care for the elderly in Britain. What he found shocked many and he ends the book with the following quote which, whilst has always remained true, I think is finding a new resonance in the current political climate:

‘At a time when we stand perhaps on the threshold of a new era in social policy we are in danger of being stigmatized by future generations as grudging, indifferent and parsimonious to those among us who are unable, because of chronic illness, disability, poverty, loss of family or inadequacy of housing, to stand up to the rigours of competitive society….It may be worth reflecting, if indeed a little sadly, that possibly the ultimate test of the quality of a free, democratic and prosperous society is to be found in the standards of freedom, democracy and prosperity enjoyed by its weakest members.’ Peter Townsend, 1962.

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Is South Africa…….Africa?

Ok, so this might sound like a stupid question but since I arrived here I have been surprised by the number of people (generally expats) who have made the comment, ‘well South Africa isn’t really Africa, is it’. [1]

To start with I wasn’t really sure what they meant, I mean have they not seen a map? (Although some would argue that the UK is geographically in Europe, but isn’t part of Europe…..)

Anyway, it started me thinking and in true researcher fashion I began asking people what they meant, and here are their responses (perhaps put a bit more bluntly than they may have done so themselves)

1. It isn’t really cheap.

My previous housemate here in Cape Town had a real issue with how much rent we are expected to pay. Now maybe it is because I have come straight from London but to me a room in a lovely 4 bedroom house, beautifully furnished with a large sitting room, garden and let’s not forget the stunning view of Table mountain, for £300 a month is a bit of a bargain. But apparently not for my American housemate who couldn’t quite get her head round it. ‘I thought I was coming to Africa’ (which could also be rephrased as ‘I thought this was somewhere where I would be able to get a lot more for my dollar and it irks me that I can’t).

2. It’s developed

Following on from this South Africa and it’s high prices are seen to be ‘not really Africa’ because it is perceived to be ‘developed’. This doesn’t sit easily with me for two reasons in particular. Firstly, can Africa not be developed? Has the narrative of ‘poor Africa’ become so dominant in western media that if somewhere doesn’t look like it belongs on a comic relief ad it can’t ‘really’ be Africa? (And don’t get me started on what ‘developed’ actually is, I’m a sociologist after all……)

Secondly, not all of South Africa is like Cape Town. In fact South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world (income gini coefficient of around 0.7 for you stats people). Indeed the World Bank Country Director recently noted that ‘The top deciles of the population accounts for 58% of the country’s income while the bottom deciles accounts for 0.5% and the bottom half less than 8%.’

Therefore whilst Cape Town may at times feel like a ‘modern’ cosmopolitan city, the enduring legacy of apartheid means that for many people in the the country access to basic services is far from easy. And with between 25-32% of the population unemployed efforts to address poverty have struggled to make an impact (in fact what reduction there has been in poverty is due largely to social assistance grants e.g. pensions, child benefit etc that have slowly been rolled out since 1994).

Now you could argue that I’m contradicting myself. On the one hand I am saying that we shouldn’t solely see Africa as ‘less developed’, and then I’m pointing out that many areas in South Africa are exactly that. But the key thing is to not see one thing. There is not one single story. Africa can be both developed and poor, in fact it can be many things. The problem is in people being able to see and recognise them all, and in fact recognising that there isn’t in fact one path to ‘development’.

3. It’s so westernised

Another common thing that people have said is that South Africa is westernised, that it feels more like being in Europe than ‘Africa’. Certainly Cape Town is in many ways with a number of large shopping malls, internationally recognised chains (some better than others!) and first class restaurants. Living here you are able to get pretty much all the home comforts that you could ask for. It isn’t going to induce a huge culture shock on most people.

But again, does this mean that can’t be Africa? Just because men don’t dance around with spears wearing lion skin skirts (ok, so maybe I’m being a bit facetious) doesn’t meant that a rich indigenous heritage is absent. Indeed it is hard to walk around Cape Town itself without seeing it, whether it be the Castle of Good Hope in the city centre, museums such as the District 6 Museum (and in fact District 6 itself) or areas such as Bo Kaap, Cape Town is much more than just another globalised city. One just has to sit on the train and listen to the multitude of languages (South Africa has 11 official languages) to realise what a diverse and culturally rich this place is.

4. There’s lots of white people

Ok, so this isn’t exactly what people said, but it is certainly what was inferred. Now Cape Town certainly has a white population (as does South Africa in general) which is much larger than in other areas of sub-saharan African in particular due to the history of European migration and settlement in the cape. But again, does that mean that South Africa isn’t Africa?

Speaking to my white South African friends about how they define themselves I get a mixed response. They certainly don’t see themselves as European! Many see themselves as African, with most defining themselves as South African recognising the problems inherent in defining yourself as a continent as large and diverse as Africa is. Crucially it is up to them to define who they are and how they see themselves. I certainly don’t see the value in judging the validity of a country’s claim (or even a city’s claim) to be one thing or another, African or otherwise, based upon the colour of the skin of the people living there.

5. It’s cold

This one makes me laugh the most. Yes, bits of Africa are cold. And not just at the top of mountains! If you come to South Africa in winter, particularly to Cape Town, you might get a bit of shock. No it’s not snowing, but it is still cold, a fact made even worse by the lack of central heating in most houses.

And it isn’t just South Africa that isn’t a hot dry desert either. I was lucky enough to recently go to Ethiopia, probably a country more than any other in Africa associated with famine and drought, and even there it can get cold (just ask my sister who had to share a tent with me in the Simien Mountains, lucky girl.)

Rant over? Not quite I’m afraid.

Because whilst the people in question claim that South Africa isn’t Africa, at times they also do quite the opposite, reciting the famous phrase – This Is Africa – when it seems to suit them. Common examples are when someone runs a red light, when a taxi goes past with twice as many people as the vehicle manufacturer intended, or when discussing the need for extra gates and bars on houses. Remember TIA.

Now I’m not denying any of the above situations. They certainly do exist but I’m not sure that you could categorise them as issues solely associated with, and defining features of, Africa.

What really irks me is how it shows how we are happy to endorse an idea when it fits within our preconceived ideas, but that when this is challenged our immediate reaction is not to think that maybe we were wrong. Rather when South Africa isn’t the image of Africa that we imagined, it is South Africa that isn’t right.

Maybe what we really need to do is to stop talking about Africa like it is a country, like it has a homogenous identity which can easily be categorised (I find it surprising  how many Europeans are happy to do this given the problems a similar approach has caused in our own little part of the world).

This is not to deny that there are many things which the continent shares, not least the experience of colonial rule and the difficult path since independence. But this should not blind us to the amazing diversity in culture and history that the continent has to offer.

My aim in writing this is not to give a definitive answer as to whether South Africa is or isn’t Africa. Rather I guess I want to both  a) get off my chest various things that have made me feel uncomfortable recently and b)try and show some of the problems that there are in the way we (and I am certainly not exempt) often talk about this continent. Rather than shying away from, we should embrace the ways in which both Africa and the world more generally differs from our expectations. Such moments provide us with an opportunity to challenge our preconceptions and deserve more than to be simply dismissed with the phrase ‘well, it’s not really Africa, is it’.


[1] I would like to point out at this early stage that this does not refer to most of the very very very lovely people that I have met here in Cape Town.

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Wamkelekile

Hi everyone,

So I have been meaning to set this up since I arrived in South Africa six weeks ago but in true ‘African’ time it is running a little late….. I would love to say that this is due to all of the work that I have been doing/hours in the library undertaking ground breaking research. But I think it is distinctly more likely that it is due to the fact that a) Cape Town is awesome and cries out to be explored and/or b) I am a little bit rubbish.

Anyway, so better late than never here is my blog which I will be using to document my experience as I attempt to undertake the fieldwork for my PhD (more on what that actually is next post). I’ll also use it to share some more general thoughts about my experience here in this amazing country. It is a big year here in South Africa with an ongoing labour relations crisis/dispute, not to mention upcoming elections, so I will keep you updated about what is going on (and what people, who know a lot more about it than I do, are saying about it).

There may also be some ranting. I will try and keep it to a minimum but I can’t promise. So I am apologising now. Sorry.

Right, so having said all that my first post is solely going to be about the mother city, Cape Town. Without a doubt one of the most spectacular cities in the world it is easy to see why so many people fall in love with this place. Here a few snaps of my first few weeks! I promise the next post will be (slightly) more high brow…..

My little home 🙂

My car – I miss power steering……..

Not a bad spot for a university (apologies for wonky photo)

The view after a little morning walk

View from the starting point of said walk.

Happy feet!

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