Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

What about the dignity of other South Africans then?

The debate surrounding The Spear has, on occasion, been framed in terms of the concept of ‘dignity’, specifically that of the State President.

And to be sure, one should grant the persons who occupy that position of responsibility from time-to-time the dignity they deserve. One could also take the argument further by claiming that every citizen of the country should be accorded the dignity that is consistent with their humanity — no person, regardless of their position in society, is less entitled than any other as far as the dignity with which they should be treated is concerned.

By ‘dignity’ I mean broadly what may be described as a condition of ‘worthiness’ which is consonant with one’s self-esteem as a human, morally accountable being.

I believe that dignity in this sense is integral to our Constitution. From this it follows that there are many people in any society who — for different reasons, such as poverty and/or lack of education, or other forms of personal disempowerment — lack the self-esteem that usually accompanies a claim to dignity. It is specifically with such people, who are so easily forgotten by those in power, that I am concerned here.

That said, when one looks around, it is apparent how many South Africans have been relegated to the position of people who are not accorded the dignity they deserve on the basis of the Constitution.

Every time I drive to work, I see dozens of people (mainly men) congregating in small clusters all along the road, squatting, leaning against trees, some with equipment such as paint brushes or rollers, in the hope of being approached by one of the drivers-by for an ad-hoc day job.

Some seem hopeful, others not; in both cases they still have their dignity to the degree that they are offering their services to anyone who is prepared to employ them for the odd job.

But this dignity is fragile, if not already evaporated, judging by their bearing, because in our kind of economy no one can survive for long without an income, and the very fact that they are there, next to the road, that early in the morning, is testimony to their desperation.

But if one can still give these job-seekers the benefit of the doubt regarding their projection of a sense of dignity, there are the ones where one is in no doubt about the total absence of any sense of dignity.

These are the ones who stand, abjectly, next to the road, or in the middle between lanes, with a piece of cardboard on which their dismal jobless plight is scribbled, usually together with the obligatory “God [will] bless you [if you give me some money]”.

They make no pretence at having dignity, principally because the heartless society in which we live seems to be willing to accord someone dignity only in proportion to the degree of wealth and power that you project through your clothes, the car you drive, your eyewear, the cell phone you brandish, and so on.

But even where those South Africans are concerned who may appear, for all intents and purposes, to lack nothing that could possibly detract from their felt and projected dignity, appearances may deceive.

I am thinking particularly of a certain group of people, or employees — except that this term becomes problematical in the light of what I am about to write.

The group I have in mind are teachers, more particularly in the Eastern Cape, where the provincial education department’s treatment of especially those teachers appointed in temporary jobs has been monumentally inefficient, in fact, dismal.

This much is known in view of the attempts on the part of central government to resolve matters by intervening in the way the department has been run in the Eastern Cape. What is less known, is the effect of this mismanagement on the lives of individual teachers, some of whom I just happen to know through a close friend.

In the case of Ms. X, whom I shall not name for obvious reasons, the impact of the Eastern Cape department of education’s shortcomings has been nothing short of disastrous.

To say the least, her — and many of her colleagues — dignity as human beings has been seriously and demonstrably affected by the gap between their work-performance and their virtually non-existent remuneration by the department, despite recent, repeated promises that these temporary teachers would (at last) be paid.

Until about September last year Ms. X was paid in irregular fashion, not knowing when she could expect a salary. Since then, she has not been paid by the department at all, with the result that she and her husband have not been able to honour their financial commitments.

This includes having her car repaired after recent mechanical trouble — repairs they can ill afford at present because they have to pay for all their monthly expenses from her husband’s salary.

Needless to say, under these circumstances people frequently get into the position where they have no option but to use the opportunity — all too easily available at ATMs these days — of taking an ‘instant’ loan at the bank, which Ms. X was forced to do a few months ago.

The result? Because she is now indebted to the bank — for a sum easily repaid if the eepartment were to pay her the salary they owe her for several months conscientious work (she refuses to stay at home in protest, because she says her kids need her) — and cannot repay the loan under these circumstances, the bank has threatened legal proceedings against her.

This is no fault of her own, Ms. X is a young teacher who loves teaching; in fact, she is passionate about it, but has reached the point where she admits that she may have to leave the teaching profession to look for work elsewhere.

I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that Ms. X’s dignity as a human being has been seriously, and adversely, affected by the Eastern Cape department of education’s inability, or unwillingness, or both, to remunerate her as it is supposed to.

And she is not the only one in this position; at the school where she teaches, there are several more teachers in exactly the same position, and at other schools there are more.

What makes their situation so invidious, is the fact that they are not in positions of power, like high-profile politicians for example, where they could use their political clout to ‘restore their dignity’ if they felt that someone has infringed on it.

To be sure, there are many people in this country who are even more disempowered than the teachers I refer to here, such as those I mentioned earlier in this piece — the unemployed, unqualified people looking for work, and so on — but whatever the case may be, if it is dignity that is an issue in South Africa, one should start by taking a hard look at these people, with scant means of addressing their own unenviable situation, instead of those who have the means to restore their dignity when they believe that it has been encroached on.

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