Saturday, September 02, 2006

South Africa's Deep Middle

From South Africa's Free State, which I have described as South Africa's "Deep South" or which I suppose we could call the "Deep Middle," comes word that maybe the province is not progressing as well as it could be. The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC)has recently argued that the"Free State has 'missed the boat' of 1994." The Free State certainly is not the most progressive part of the country. It is overwhelmingly rural, dotted with dorpies and few cities -- Kroonstad and Bloemfontein are the only ones that stand out -- and is at the heart of Afrikanerdom. The culture is heavily tiltted toward farming, and on the farms, the boere culture dominates. I don't want to imply that Afrikaner = racist, but the fact remains that not much has changed in terms of fundamental dynamics between black and white on many of the farms.

[Tseliso Thipanyane, CEO of the commission] said one of the issues that caught the commission's attention was the economic exploitation of farm workers in terms of what they were allegedly being paid by employers.

"Other reports we have received include one about someone's lion which broke a fence and chewed a farm worker's cow, without compensation.

"We came across reports of people being assaulted and dismissed [from farms] without any due process whatsoever," he said.

The commissioners also visited farm schools in the Clocolan area.

Thipanyane said they interviewed pupils who had to walk about 20km a day to attend school, and others who had to go to a nearby stream in order to drink water during school hours.

Commissioner Zonke Majodina, deputy chairperson of the commission, agreed that the plight of these children needs to be addressed.

"The commission has undertaken to be part of more programmes and to reach out more. The greatest human rights violations occur on these farms," she said.

Majodina was taken aback by the living conditions of rural people. "People seem to have missed the boat in terms of the events of 1994, where we went today [Friday]. It was almost as if the events of 1994 had never happened. We will have to use our mandate much more vigorously."

Thipanyane agreed and said there is "definitely" serious concern about the state of human rights in many parts of the province. "We, as a commission, together with the relevant stakeholders, have to address this as a matter of urgency."

It appears that the volatile combination of racism and poverty are working against many of the province's rural dwellers. Part of the issue is cultural, but alleviation of some issues can come with increased delivery of services -- potable water, housing, electricity, viable public transportation -- as well as of the age-old issue of job creation. Free State is not the poorest province in South Africa, not by a long shot, but it still must be a priority area for the government.

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