There is a meme circulating on social media about how, regardless of class, we are all essentially equal. How our final destinations will all be uniform. The meme shows a big beautiful house, contrasted with a small leaky shack. Then there is a picture of two open graves both six feet deep, both rectangular in shape. The caption is something glib like, “No matter where you live now, our final resting place will have the same dimensions.”
I hate the message in the meme. It may be well intentioned, trying to show that we all essentially equal. But trust me, no poor person is content to only achieve social equality with the well-off in the grave. The need for shelter for humans extends beyond just finding somewhere to hide from the elements. Every poor person wants a home they can be proud of. A home that does not only provide the most rudimentary protection from the elements.
South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. We have opulent wealth and abject poverty operating side by side. We have a Sandton where the average house costs an average of four million rand, and just 21 minutes from Sandton we have an Alexandra township where a 250 square meter yard is often shared by up to eleven families, all sharing a single toilet.
The poor and the rich live and die differently. This is glaring when one looks at the public health system. Recently my mother got seriously ill. Before I give you the details, let me tell you a bit about her. She is 78. She has worked full time as a primary school teacher since she was 22. She retired at 65. Thousands of adults owe their literacy to her. She taught people how to count, read and write. Some of her former pupils went on to change the world in significant ways. She was a divorced mother of four, and while working she had to make a choice between sending her children to private schools or getting medical aid. She opted for decent church-run schools for her children. This meant she could not afford medical aid.
The ambulance we called took forty minutes to get to us. The forty minutes felt like several lifetimes. My anxiety was so great it had shape and scent. Then at the hospital we were there for SEVENTEEN HOURS WAITING before she was finally admitted. Waiting for her to get help, I grew afraid and then angry and then pleading, and finally just sad. I can’t blame the staff. The nurses and doctors who work in public health are exhausted and overworked and under-resourced. All this strains the medical professionals’ experiences, and ultimately affects the kind of service they are able to render to the poor. My mother survived, but it was a traumatic experience.
However, people still cling on to the idea that we all have equal opportunities. Recently a well-known DJ went to Twitter to declare that everyone can achieve the kind of success he has achieved, because we all have the same 24 hours in a day. This is idiotic. One does not only need time to succeed. Secondly, to say that every person has 24 hours in a day is intellectual laziness. The rich and the poor experience time differently. If you have two workers in a company, one with a car and one without, the one without a car will have less than 24 hours in his day. More of his time will be spent commuting and waiting. A worker with a car might take 25 minutes to get to work. The one without, the one who relies on public transport, might have to walk to the taxi rank for fifteen minutes. When at the rank they might have to wait in the long rush-hour queues for another fifteen minutes. The taxi might take 25 minutes to get to the rank closest to work and the worker might need to walk a further ten minutes to finally be at work. I was glad to see that another DJ replied that time is not the only factor to success. That resources also matter. He made the analogy that a man armed with an electric saw will be able to cut down more trees than a man with an axe, even though they are given the same amount of time.
Finally: apartheid was an economic policy that entrenched inequality. It has resulted in more than 70 % of South Africans – black people – only owning 4% of the land. In order to undo the effects of apartheid, we need to make sure that the first piece of land black people own is not their grave.
Tell Us: As the writer says, SA is one of the most unequal countries in the world. What are ways that we could change this?
This blog also forms part of our Rights 2.0 – Bridging Divides project. Find out more here.