The level of inequality in South Africa is well known and often referred to by many from various sectors. But no matter how many times one hears of it, it is no easier to experience. South Africa seems on the surface to be a much better and wealthier country than most. After all, it is a country blessed with an abundant supply of natural resources and boasts a variety of well-developed sectors. South Africa is also home to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, which is the 18th largest stock exchange in the world. The country is not experiencing any obvious conflict within and has proved its ability to host world-class sporting events, such as the Fifa 2010 World Cup and the 2012 Orange African Cup of Nations. There’s no doubt that from a national perspective the country is a land of abundance.
Despite all this, South Africa has become renowned worldwide for its levels of violence, but this is often the kind of violence that involves guns, knives and its physical manifestations. What goes ignored is the large levels of structural violence experienced daily by millions in South Africa. The violence meted out on children condemned to receiving education in a school with no ablution facilities. The violence meted out by a “justice” system, which dispenses justice based on socio-economic status, which is still very racialised in South Africa. The violence experienced by children who pay the price for being born to a family of no or little means, who often find themselves condemned to a life of unemployment or menial jobs which still have them unable to meet their own most basic needs.
It is the form of violence that can be seen in Rooigrond, Lethlabile, De Doorns, Verdwaal and many other communities in the country. The violence of going without the most basic services, leaving parents with haunted looks as their children go hungry because there’s no water with which to cook. Those with no alternative, being forced to use the public health system and undergoing the trauma of being attended to by nurses without the most basic of equipment or even being operated on using lighting from a cellphone. This violence is obvious in Bothaville, where residents go without jobs and food, despite being surrounded by “millions of hectares of prosperous farmland filled with lucrative maize crops”. There are many other examples that can be given, each telling the story of the personal devastation and trauma undergone by many citizens of this great land.
Although unseen, the damage caused by this form of violence is no less harmful than that caused by physical violence. And this unseen form of violence is slowly killing the majority of South Africans, who do not know where their next meal will be from. Daunting economic problems from the apartheid era, coupled with a government that increasingly seems determined to maintain the status quo have kept this form of violence in its place.
It is this form of violence that in some minds evokes images of Ethiopia, Somalia and Burundi when starvation is mentioned. It is difficult for some to comprehend that here in South Africa — a country in which the right to life, food, health and water are enshrined in the highest law of the land — malnutrition, chronic hunger and even starvation lurk in our midst.
In November 2011, four children died, taking with them whatever potential they carried. These children were from Verdwaal in the North West Province — a province in which according to Census 2011, 60.4% of children and 51% of youth live in conditions of poverty. Post-mortem results confirmed that the children, aged 9, 7, 6 and 2 years old respectively, died of starvation and dehydration after they walked for about 10km to 14km looking for their mother to give them food. Various independent newspapers and online publications reported it. The DA released a statement on the matter and it was shared quite extensively on social networks with many expressing shock that this could happen in our country. Broadcast media too covered it and on January 19 2012, it even made onto Special Assignment. This extensive coverage revealed that, almost the entire community of more than 4 000 people was undocumented, leaving them unable to access services such as social grants, a shocking, but not unique situation in this beautiful land of ours.
Four innocent lives needlessly lost in the country often referred to as Africa’s economic engine. Four lives, which after years of unseen bruises and wounds gave in — perishing as no human should. Four children, meant to be the future of South Africa as we often refer to children, gone just like that with many more to follow as long as things remain as they are.
Despite what the post-mortem results reveal, it is necessary to interrogate these deaths. Did these children and those who will follow really die of dehydration and starvation or were they actually murdered? Were they murdered by a vile history so easily swept under the rug, combined with a clearly uncaring and failing government? Were they murdered by all the above mentioned, with our indifference allowing it to happen? Difficult questions need to be asked if we are to ensure that this never happens again, but over and above that, the answers sought need to be put to meaningful action. Without this happening, the systematic murder that results over time as a result of the structural violence experienced by people will continue to needlessly claim lives in the most brutal of ways in a country that is home to Sandton — a suburb which is reportedly “Africa’s hottest millionaire playground, boasting more high net worth individuals than anywhere else on the continent”.