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Last Updated: 05/20/2004South Africa: The Good News
Yotam Ben Meir
An interview with Cyprian Mkhuseli CyprianVimba, a South African human Rights Lawyer, portrays some of the issues that face his country, that only last week has celebrated a decade of democracy and liberation. He finds that black South Africans responses to white role are fundamentally conciliatory.
Mkhuseli CyprianVimba, or Cyprian as he introduced himself, is a 31 years old Human rights lawyer who lives and works in Pretoria, South Africa. Cyprian is completing his Master in the International Law and HR Department at the University for Peace. He is writing his thesis on International Law and Settlement of Disputes, Applying it not only to South Africa, but to the whole continent, since the understanding of conflicts and settling of disputes through [the implementation of] International law has been for me a first priority . He bases his research on South Africa s experience since South Africa has a leading role in the continent, as countries take it as a model in terms of democracy and the settlement of disputes. The chief negotiator for Burundi, Congo and almost all the countries that are involved in conflicts, are from South Africa. African countries see South Africa as the only country that could save the situation by terms of mediation, while many parties rely on South Africa in terms of helping with negotiations. In Zimbabwe, for example, in the inner conflict the opposition parties were insisting that SA should intervene as a third party.
In South Africa Cyprian works with Lawyers for Human Rights, an NGO that strives to promote awareness, protection and enforcement of legal and human rights through the creation of a human rights culture. Cyprian was in charge of managing the paralegals training program, that includes all aspects of the law and aims to produce accredited professional paralegals who are able to render effective services to rural and marginalized communities, in the aim of building their capacity so they are able to assist their communities . The trainings were introducing paralegals to the law system, and to civil and family law procedures as the paralegals are the ones who are working with the communities directly. They work in the communities advice centers, and in a way function as legal paramedics. They are the first port of call for the people in the communities, who will normally seek guidance with them .
While supplying legal education, LHR are also taking to court all the human rights violations cases. I can mention, for example, the case of the recognition of the same sex marriage for gays and lesbians, Cyprian told me. We joined the case as friends of the court , taking care of providing the court with the necessary information, so that it could make a right decision regarding an application that was drafted by the applicants themselves. The case related to the change of designation of marriage, which could not be decided by the court hence it took the case to the supreme court of appeals, so that there could be a change of legislation . Advocacy groups are still lobbying today for the Equality Bill, basing their arguments on the post-apartheid constitution that prohibits any kind of discrimination, and perceiving same-sex marriage as related to work place and other benefits that heterosexual couples receive.
When one thinks of Lawyers for Human Rights, one would think of going to court and about educating people about their rights, but the bottom line is that in South Africa, as the developing country it is, [advocacy for human rights] was largely also the work of building the basic notions of a legal system. After 1994 the whole situation has changed and we started to talk about access to justice, and what does access to justice mean [ ] That it also included criminals, that is, people who have allegedly committed criminal offenses [ ] Like, if you kill someone, and the state prosecuted that, if you go to court without legal representation, than there could be a miscarriage of justice [ ] In such instances LHR also represented the criminals, to insure that the court process is fair to the accused.
So it is about violations of human rights holistically, while usually human rights are perceived as contrary to criminal offenses. It is to insure that human rights prevail for all .
The last decade has seen the end of apartheid rule in South Africa, and the beginning of black majority rule. Although this represents a major development in the history of South Africa, many complex challenges lie ahead. Under apartheid, blacks were denied the right to vote or own property, their freedom of movement was restricted, and they were relocated in homelands where they lacked the means to make a living. Many were forced to migrate to the cities in search of work, where they were grouped in townships devoid of infrastructure. Protest against apartheid grew, with the result that in 1994 the country held its first multi-ethnic elections, leading to the formation of a government under the presidency of Nelson Mandela (since replaced by Thabo Mbeki).
Mandela s government introduced a program of radical social reform, but the residual inequalities of the apartheid era have not easily been eradicated. The cost of the years of conflict will be paid for a long time yet, not least in terms of lawlessness, social disruption and lost education. Current income distribution in South Africa is one of the most unequal in the world. Its economic spectrum shows at one end the extreme wealth comparable to that of a developed country and desperate poverty at the other. The white minority retains its position of economic privilege, while the black population suffers from a high level of unemployment and low wages.
Under President Thabo Mbeki the government has pressed ahead with the liberalization of the economy, taking measures to privatize government institutions, programs and public services. I asked Cyprian for his opinion of this controversial topic, which lately was even named by some South African activists as water apartheid , in the case of water privatization. It also presents the strong stance made by some against the co-modification of natural resources and public services, while others claim that privatization, or outsourcing as Cyprian would term it, is the only way for South Africa to gather the so needed resources for building and reconstructing the desperately needed infrastructure, which most of the country lacks due the Apartheid regime policies.
As mentioned, for Cyprian it was important to make it clear that it is not to be taken as privatization literally, but rather as outsourcing most of the programs that were under the government to different developing companies, so that they have only a share . That happened, Cyprian told me, after all state-controlled companies, almost fully subsidized by the government, did not produce the desired results of reconstructing and rebuilding the country s infrastructure, and performed inefficiently, showing a poor obligation to the implementation of the programs they were responsible for. Outsourcing some of the country s public services, it was hoped, would, together with the benefits of taxation and channeling the taxes to other causes, also make sure that the companies hired for the task will have more obligations for implementing the programs they were in charge of .
The post-Apartheid constitution assures that all government programs, among them those that were outsourced, are structured in a way that will support and empower the people, Cyprian explained. Public Education in South Africa is free, including uniforms and books, so a child needs absolutely nothing to go to school. Children between the ages 1-14 have free access to health services, as much as pregnant women, people with asthma and much more . Every citizen is entitled to 8 liters of water a day for free, and up until certain amount, water is also subsidized, as well as electricity. The state has social security plans to financially support poor families and people with disabilities. People with HIV get full medical and financial support. And the list goes on and on.
Nevertheless, one cannot disregard the ongoing internal dispute concerning the privatization/outsourcing process, where opposition to government policies has been on the rise. I asked Cyprian what he thought could be considered as the source for this dispute and ongoing discontent.
First he noted to the fact that before the outsourcing process has started, state owned companies were given the opportunity to be in charge of building the country s infrastructure but failed to supply.
Further, he has suggested that there has been a misconception that should be attributed to the government, because whenever you bring services to people, people need to be educated. The government has failed in educating people on the role they need to play in supporting government programs. We must acknowledge that that might be the cause for the discontent and misunderstanding of government policies . In rural areas for instance, people were fetching their uncharged water from polluted rivers, and by building water infrastructure, financing it through the privatization, or outsourcing, process, the government was able to bring purified waters that one can rely they are safe to drink . But, according to Cyprian, the government did not take it to educate those communities about the costs of building and maintaining the water infrastructure.
This unawareness, Cyprian suggests, is also being exploited by opposition parties which are also disseminating this misconception telling people in rural areas your government wants you to pay for water , whereas water is a natural resource that you are not suppose to be paying for. So, taking into account that due to various reasons people in these areas have not been educated about the rational behind these programs of the importance of contributing the very law fares for water or electricity, it becomes now an issue to say that the government or the ruling party wants us to pay for services that we used to get for free. [Thus] opposition parties claim that the government oppresses the poor, but they don t mention that the government is giving you money to help you pay for these services. They don t mention that the water that goes to your house is cleaner than those fetched from the river.
What I am trying to say is that people are used by political opposition, but in the same time, having criticized the political opposition, there also has been a lack on the side of the government to educate people on the importance of paying for services that you are provided with, so as to sustain and maintain them . Before criticizing government policies, Cyprian concludes, people should be first educated about their rationale.
But it is not all about misconceptions and lack of education. There is also a very large movement of landless people in South Africa, which is to be differentiated, according to Cyprian, from the land reform, where land is being distributed to the people who habitat it, and where there are only 16,000 claims left, out of the more than 790,000 claims that were initiated originally in 1996.
However, that is different from people who are landless, who live in the shacks of the South African shantytowns and rural areas.
Under apartheid, the black majority was confined to 13% of the land, while the white minority controlled the remaining 87%. In 1994, the African National Congress swept to power on a tide of national and international euphoria and pledged to redistribute 30 per cent of all land seized during the apartheid era. Almost a decade later, only two per cent of land has been returned to its black owners. 19 million black South Africans eke out a living on 15% of land and millions of urban black South Africans face eviction from the illegal informal settlements that surround the cities. In 2002, despite eight years of land reform, 85% of the country was still under white ownership.
Many poor rural constituencies across the country have grown tired of the government's broken promises on land reform and in July 2001 a decision was made by various community leaders to form a new national Landless People s Movement. The National Land Committee, which supports the LPM s activities, facilitates dialogue between the LPM and government.
Around 45-55% of the population in South Africa are today still landless, Cyprian stated, nevertheless In almost every town you will find hundreds of 2 bedrooms houses that have been build by the government for all the people who have been living in shacks [ ] This houses have running water and electricity, and the people who are moving there are getting support from the government to maintain those services.
So, in a lot of the small towns people are no longer living in those shacks. But we still have a very long way to go, since there still are a lot of people all around the country, in big cities and rural areas, who are still landless, still living in shacks .
I asked Cyprian what he thought of the fact that although Apartheid has ended, still, most of the economy is controlled and run by the white population. I found his answer remarkable. Different situations call for different strategies, he said. South Africa would not have been the way it is if we used the approach of just taking property from the whites. Some people will say, OK, whites should go, we no longer need them in South Africa. They made us suffer in the past, now we want to be in control . But that would have only led to an internal endless violent conflict. South Africa has to look for a makeover solution to the problem [ ] The Question Nelson Mandela came up with was about the issue of human fulfillment and that it would not be achieved by chasing away whites out of the country. Some whites have been there more than 200 years. If you say they must go a way, where should they go? That would only open a bloody conflict like the one that takes place today in Zimbabwe, and that is bad.
So, the approach that we used was that as South Africans, the first thing that we came up with, was to say these people [whites] are oppressed. Their problem is that they were ignorant how that [Apartheid] has affected us as human beings. So let s work together. Let them keep what they have, but also work together to put the black people in the same position that they have . Together with the reconciliation committees, many affirmative actions were, and still are, taken in all aspect of public spheres, and discrimination, for example, but one of many, has become a criminal offence. We chose a different path than that of, let s say, Zimbabwe. More than 80% of the whites accept the government now and the last attempted coup has failed, a lot thanks to this process of education . The empowerment of the black population, a process, and a long one, he thought than, and still holds today, should be the main concern in re-building South Africa.
 Although in this case SA refused intervention, insisting that in this stage, the dispute could still be solved between the opposition parties themselves, as Cyprian later commented.