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du Preez, Max  (2005) Shacks of fear . Daily News : -.

The poor have been abandoned and ignored, writes Max du Preez

'We are on our own. We are completely on our own." I have read a lot of political documents, credos and statements in my life as a journalist.

I have never read anything as compelling, real and disturbing as the piece written in The Star last week by S'bu Zikode, chairman of the Abahlali base mjondolo (shack dwellers) movement.

He was speaking on behalf of the Durban settlements that elected him, but I am quite sure all people living in squalor in squatter camps in South Africa would say he formulated their anger and desperation accurately.

I wonder if those finely attired "champions of the poor" from the ruling alliance who gathered at a top Durban hotel last Friday to drink expensive whiskey and eat imported prawns and matured rare steaks in solidarity with their hero, Jacob Zuma, bothered to read Zikode's statement.

Or if they realised that each one of their many fancy cars parked outside is worth a dozen or so houses that could be built for those who live in shacks.

Zikode paints a nightmarish picture of life in the squatter camps, of filth, disease and fear, of places where the hardest thing to do is to maintain some form of dignity.

"The night is supposed to be for relaxing and getting rest," Zikode writes. "But not in the jondolos. People stay awake worrying about their lives. You must see how big the rats are that run over small babies."

Zikode overturns President Thabo Mbeki's often-repeated statement that we have two nations, one black and poor, one white and rich. There are three groups now, Zikode says: the poor, the middle class and the rich. "The poor have been isolated from the middle class.

We are becoming more poor and the rest are becoming more rich."
He is quite desperate when he describes how they're ignored: "Those in power are blind to our suffering, because they have not seen what we see, they have not felt what we feel every second, every day ... President Thabo Mbeki speaks politics.

Our premiers and mayors speak politics. But who will speak about the issues that affect the people every day - water, electricity, education, land, housing?"

There is only one way the poor can speak and be heard, says Zikode. "When you want to achieve what is legitimate through peaceful negotiations, through humility, by respecting those in authority, your plea becomes criminal.

You will be deceived, you will be fooled and undermined. This is why we have resorted to the streets. When we stand there in our thousands, we are taken seriously."

And his message to the politicians is clear: "The community has realised that voting for parties has not brought any change for us - especially at the level of local government."

There is no ideology or rhetoric in Zikode's message. It is a simple, desperate scream for the government, the business sector and the rest of us to wake up and stop this violation of human rights in our midst.

If we can't get off our butts and do anything for moral or humanitarian reasons, then at least we should do it for the sake of stability in our society.

The poor are going to make sure that the middle classes and the rich sleep very uncomfortably if this state of affairs is to drag on.

Sociologists, psychologists and political scientists will one day write learned theses about how it happened that a movement that grew out of the oppressed masses became an uncaring, elitist and classist party in just a few years.

They seem to spend far more energy on black economic empowerment, which only benefits the top 1% of the formerly oppressed, than on looking after the bottom 50%.

They condone the payment of vulgar amounts of money to city managers and mayors who live extravagant lifestyles but are unavailable when approached by people pleading for just the basics to keep body and soul together.

They spend hundreds of millions on diplomacy and peacemaking all over the continent, but the plight of the poor leaves them cold.

They spend billions on building a new defence force (while we have no enemies), but cannot spend a quarter of that to eradicate squatter camps.

What will it take for South Africans and the government to wake up and actually do something drastic? We have had rioting and uprisings in dozens of townships over the last three years, some very violent.

It seems to have had no impact on the Union Buildings or on parliament.

What do these unfortunate people have to do to get heard? Burn thousands of cars in the suburbs like the rioters did in France? Start planting bombs?

The Communist Party and Cosatu can do a lot better with their energy than spending it on supporting Jacob Zuma.

He has been in provincial and national government - deputy-president for the last few years - and was as guilty of neglecting the poor as the rest. When did he suddenly become a champion for the poor? The day he got fired?

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