Ilham Rawoot
Ilham Rawoot

South Africans are not apathetic, just confused

We were the country that fought against all odds, that stood up to perpetrators of human rights though it meant lives and futures were lost. We were the freedom fighters, the reconcilers, and set ourselves as an example for revolutionaries the world over. But fifteen years after our democracy was born, we are a split nation beyond income, education and opportunity. Revolution now belongs to the poor, while the middle class has claimed apathy as its way of life.

I was angered for a long time because of the indifference, the conscious ignorance that has gripped the people who I meet daily, and who live, drive and float in the same economic and class circles. It was a long and arduous process trying to figure out where this misplaced apathy came from, but finally I’ve got it: South Africans are merely confused. For many years, our governments’ words and actions have been contradictory to the point of absurdity, and it seems to have left civilians in a state of bewilderment. Do we support the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or not? Are we okay with the Israeli occupation or are they violating human rights? Do we support justice for tyrants or ignore their warrants? It’s not that South Africans don’t care, it’s that they’re just not sure. All thanks to government policies which put their money, no strike that, our money, everywhere but where their mouth is.

What seems like ages ago, as the US prepared to enter Iraq, our president at the time, Thabo Mbeki, accused Britain and the US of international bullying and warned that “the prospect facing the people of Iraq should serve as sufficient warning that in future we too might have others descend on us, guns in hand”. Mugabe issues aside, I was proud of Mbeki that day.

Then, two months ago, in another show of potential revolt against the colonisers, we watched as Jacob Zuma did nothing while the African Union chose to ignore the warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes. Because they’re standing up for the little people. Because they don’t see why Africans should be prosecuted and not the Bush administration. Because two wrongs, apparently, make a right.

Both these presidents intended to act with a nobility that showed that we will not be walked over by the rich and powerful West. But I don’t believe them. Both these presidents have been in charge, all powerful and all seeing while South Africa has been exporting arms, the same guns which Mbeki warned us about, to the United States to use against civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year the government had to pay up R660 million in taxpayers’ money to bail out struggling state-owned arms manufacturer Denel so that it could continue supplying weapons to maintain the above-mentioned wars. In March this year, Denel Aviation was named an official maintenance and repair service centre for Lockheed Martin’s C-130 and L-100 aircraft, used in the same wars. A short while ago, Gilbert do Nascimento, executive of marketing and sales at Denel, boasted about the company’s full order books, including a deal to supply 50 hand-held surveillance units to the US armed forces in Afghanistan.

It is no secret that the US sends approximately $7 million a day to Israel in funds and military equipment. The guns that occupy and the tanks that steamroll the land which has so often been said to resemble South Africa’s dark past, by outsiders and insiders alike, are very likely to come from our own soil. And all the while, our Human Sciences Research Council releases a report, only a month ago, funded by the department of foreign affairs, which finds that while “both colonialism and apartheid are prohibited by international law … Israel has violated, and continues to violate, both prohibitions in the occupied Palestinian territories”.

Though Cosatu members refuse to offload a container ship with Israeli goods, our government sees no problem in the continued existence of the Israeli embassy in Pretoria, and the maintenance of a South African ambassador in Tel Aviv. Five years after Zuma said at the memorial service for the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat that “we are … recommitting and rededicating ourselves to the cause he fought for, the freedom and self-determination of the Palestinian people” a July report by the Grassroots Palestinian Anti-apartheid Wall Campaign found that state-owned companies are still dealing not only with Israeli businesses but with ones directly linked to the occupation.

Although South Africa submitted a written statement to the International Court of Justice in 2004 expressing its consideration of both the apartheid wall and settlements illegal by international law, Eskom has been working locally with the Israel Electric Company, a 99% state-owned firm that has been actively helping to build new settlements and connect them to the power grid. Telkom has tried to outsource information technology processes to Amdocs, an Israeli firm suspected of using billing records as a means of intelligence gathering, but was stopped by unions who got wind of the matter. Transnet has previously contracted Israeli firms NICE and Orsus, who develop surveillance technology, much of which has been used against and tested on occupied Palestinians.

When Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier exposes the country’s dodgy arms dealings, he gets into trouble. He is not applauded for bringing to light information the public should have known, but is chastised for doing it illegitimately.

So what do we believe — actions certainly do speak louder than words, in a manner of speaking. But perhaps there is hope: Lindiwe Sisulu has called for Denel to be strategically “realigned”. Although this is the same woman who, as minister of housing, forcefully removed thousands of residents from Joe Slovo informal settlement in Cape Town two years ago, to make room for unaffordable accommodation along the N2, to look pretty for the tourists. She too, confused the public by explaining how those removed would be moving from their shacks to houses in Delft. She forgot to mention the problem of squatters in the houses and the fact that the new tenants would never be able to afford the transport costs that come with being forcefully removed to an area in the middle of nowhere. So when South Africans saw these new home owners angry and protesting, they were simply befuddled.

And a month ago, while the poor were desperately calling for service delivery they have so often been promised, our president, Zuma, pleaded with them to give him more time. This while his new communications minister was splashing out R1 million each on two luxury vehicles as part of his “prescribed guidelines”. I am baffled. So are the men and women in Diepsloot and Tokoza. More so are the people of Houghton and Camps Bay. Perhaps it’s the idealist in me, but I always hoped that if those people weren’t confused, if they knew what was really going on, none of this would be happening. Someone needs to clear this all up.