Poor blacks grow impatient with Mandela's rule Unmet promises erode base of ruling party

June 11, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KHAYELITSHA, South Africa -- Four years after this country's first black majority government promised them -- and millions like them -- a better life, Kate Ncisana and Etheline Nkume are out of patience.

Nkume lives at B156a, Site C, a shack in this tumbledown township outside of Cape Town.

"Each one of us has the right to have a house as a decent place of his or her own, to bring up the kids," she says.

Tired of waiting for one of the million new homes the government said it would build in its first term, which ends next year, she wants title to land now so she can start building her own home.

"That's my biggest request for the government -- that the government should contribute to us good land. There is nothing else that will satisfy us."

Etheline Nkume would also like to own a plot. She blames the whites of snooty Hout Bay, on the Indian Ocean coast between here and Cape Point, for blocking her chances of getting title to land on which she and more than 600 other blacks have been squatting since 1987.

"It is still the old apartheid oppression," she says. "We are between white people right now. It's the same people who are stopping us getting land.

"We voted for the new government that promised it was going to build houses. Today we don't have houses. We want houses. Today we don't have land. We want land."

Nkume and others are airing their complaints at one of a nationwide series of hearings on poverty, an abiding condition in a country that Deputy President Thabo Mbeki recently acknowledged remains two nations -- one rich and white, the other poor and black.

It is estimated that at least a quarter of the urban population in South Africa lives in abject poverty, mostly confined to townships of ramshackle shanties around every large city.

"Much of this poverty can be traced back to the long history of the state removing and relocating blacks from prime land to less and less desirable locations," said Farid Esack, a Muslim cleric who chairs the Commission on Gender Equality and is a member of the poverty panel.

The hearings are being organized by social and religious organizations to highlight the problems of the poor and homeless as the government and opposition parties gear up for next year's general election.

The government would like to win an all-powerful two-thirds of the vote next year, but its standing in the polls is currently 54 per cent, down from the 62 percent it won in 1994 in the first all-race elections. And the hearings give an insight into why.

Held not in the corridors of power but in pockets of poverty, they offer the previously unheard poor a chance to lift their voices. About 200 assembled under the corrugated iron roof of the Khayelitsha's soulless Site B Hall for this week's session.

These were people who endured lives of unrelenting disadvantage and see their lot basically unchanged after four years of black rule.

Hour after painful hour, the words flowed forth, moving and articulate. These are tales of humdrum hardship from the likes of:

Mantobani Simbata, part of the human flotsam of apartheid, exiled, harassed, relocated for most of his life, who wants nothing more than a home he can call his own, a man who says, with unaffected eloquence, that he was born in poverty and raised in envy.

"If I could get to own a house," he says, "I could see my end being a bright one. So many people have ultimately died in South Africa in the position I am in right now, as I am speaking."

Norma Gillivini, the mother of three, beaten and abandoned by a drunken husband who gave her just $10 every two weeks to support a family of four, while he spent more than $100 on drink.

Only at the hearing did she learn that she can get maintenance payments withheld directly from the pay of the man she wants tried to murder. She was given the information by Helen Suzman, the veteran anti-apartheid activist who is on the panel.

Marjorie Billings, one of 19 children brought up in a one-room shack in a place aptly named Lost City. She explained how she was converted from a victim of abuse into a social activist by the conditions she endured, but adds: "I still don't have a house."

Kate Ncisana told the story of her rough passage through 53 years -- most of them under apartheid. She was born the youngest of four children to parents who lived in what she considered comparative comfort in the backyard of a family of mixed race.

Even these modest circumstances turned out to be too good to last for a black family in the apartheid years. The government introduced the Group Areas Act, which decreed that blacks and so-called racially mixed "coloreds" had to live in separate areas. Her father, who made a living manufacturing anti-burglar bars and iron stands for plant pots, resisted the move.

He was arrested, escaped, and disappeared. Young Kate, with her mother and a sister, were relocated to the black township of Langa, where her mother died six months later.

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