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Publication Details

Reference
Purcell, Jeff (2008) The poor man's view of truth. Eye on Civil Society : -.

Summary
Many South Africans spent the apartheid years on the wrong side of
history and their souls cannot afford much more error, writes Jeff Purcell

One month ago, 200 representatives from social movements throughout KZN
gathered in Durban to discuss how they could work together towards
common goals: housing, medicines, water, clean air, and have another
chance to really change South Africa for the better.

The transition to "democracy" benefited some much more than others. But
take a drive down the N2 and you can see the shack settlements - there
are millions throughout the country living in danger of fire, walking
miles to unclean taps, and struggling to keep children warm at night.

Look out the window on your way to the airport - and breathe in south
Durban's toxins. Squint and you'll see the kilometres of flats situated
just next to petrol refineries, paper mills, and cancer-causing waste.

Apartheid demanded that Durban's Indians live there; post-apartheid has
tolerated it. Go out to Vryheid and see what rural poverty feels like on
a winter's night.

These communities are as much a part of Durban as the Berea, and as much
a part of KZN as Pietermaritzburg. Yet their residents are treated as
sub-human. There is little "post" apartheid when the people of Durban
are not acting immediately to get people away from the refineries that
cause cancer.

At the movement workshop, we heard old Indian women describe forced
evictions the same as young Zulu men. We saw south Durban activists
whose children are sick with leukaemia linking with Pinetown people's
struggles against corrupt councillors.

Coalition
In each case, the state and municipality has refused to provide, and
only shows up to evict, bulldoze and charge higher rates for electricity
and water. These links between communities are growing stronger - the
coalition is forming.

Will Durban's middle and upper class oppose or accept their demands?
What kind of "world class" city will be featured on the front page - one
that denies public gathering permits, or one that joins with the public
gatherings to really enact a better life for all?

All people in Durban have choices - as all South Africans did during
apartheid - to sit and watch, or to fight for justice. There is no
middle ground, not then nor today for this country. Either march towards
the future or cling to the colonial past.

KZN's strongest are building community movements and alliances that will
make sure their children live differently. No child, today or tomorrow,
should be forced to shiver in a shack, just as no woman, yesterday or
today, should be attacked by the police for marching against injustice.

A wise woman I knew told me: "When politicians and people disagree, one
might identify with the poor. Put your ear next to the man with the
least status and you'll find out the truth." It was true in the
struggle, and it is true in the struggle against what remains of
apartheid. Those closest to the tap can tell us very much about water
rates. Smell sulphur dioxide everyday and you will be an expert.

Providing, finally, suitable housing and space for everyone in Durban is
no simple task. It will require Durbanites to acknowledge their past,
and to realise that no amount of BEE can change a broken-down flat that
hasn't been improved since it was built in 1961.

Humanity
Moving the shackdwellers to the rural areas and the city's periphery, of
course, is apartheid thinking.

In the coming months and years, as Durban spends billions of rands on a
football tournament, and another generation in poverty and toxicity
comes of age, the people of this city must demonstrate their humanity.
The wrong side of history is a most uncomfortable place, and not only
for the inevitable failures of those on it. It is a place where many
South Africans spent the apartheid years, and their souls cannot afford
much more error.

If a group of children from south Durban boycott their school until they
can be educated without getting asthma, will you condemn them or support
them? When the next shack settlement burns down because the municipality
won't provide electricity, will you do nothing at all?

As the banners, marches, sit-ins, rallies and occupations begin, readers
should be serious in judging the women, men, children, and elderly who
stand against the bullets and withstand the teargas. Ask yourselves:
"What is so terrible that these women are willing to risk their lives to
change it?"

The poor are not thugs, they are not criminals, they are not lawless -
they are human beings in need of better lives. Watch as they fight for
them. You will be inspired by the dedication and vision you see. God
willing, you will join them, redeeming us all.

# Jeff Purcell is a visiting scholar at the Centre for Civil Society.

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