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In the line of fire

Whether as victims of crime or fires, the poor are always sidelined and find themselves on the back foot and at the mercy of a government that systematically fails them. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya calls for advocacy in defense of the poor which requires that we have our own tongues loosened and ears opened.

You will remember a time when it was normal to see tow trucks parked in close proximity to where car accidents were most likely to happen. In more recent times we have similarly seen that privately owned ambulances have joined towing vehicles with vulture-like expectations of the worst.

Given media reports following the devastating fire in a Johannesburg inner city building last week, it is only a matter of time before someone figures out that there is big money to be made by having a large privatised network of fire brigades.

This familiar sight on our roadsides, in many ways, replicates what is already happening elsewhere in our society. This is especially so in the wealthier city suburbs where financial means are invariably greater.

In these cases, those who can afford to outsource safety and security to private security firms do. In fact, many of us only involve the police when we realise that we need an official stamp and a case number to process our insurance claims.

The same applies to health care and education where many have the privilege of being able to afford private medical aid and send their children to exorbitantly priced private schools that the majority of us could never dream of affording.

In fact, just this week, a private higher education company, Advtech announced that it would pay up to a maximum of R500m to acquire the Australian-founded private university, Monash.

We need to begin to pose much deeper questions, asking why deals like this have become necessary or even why they're possible at all. Is it because some parents cannot trust that their children will not have their year “wasted” by those too poor to demand varsity fees to fall?

According to news reports, one of the reasons that firefighters could not get the Johannesburg fire under control sooner, was because the city's fire hydrants were not working.

While this is serious, the mere idea of a fire hydrant – let alone a working one – is likely a novelty for those who live in informal settlements across South Africa. They are forced to contend each day with the possibility of a fire destroying the already meagre goods held in their possession and even having their entire home burn down.

Despite the greater statistical probability of a fire in an informal settlement, a fire hydrant is regarded as something which only the better-off deserve.

The consequences of this are literally fatal for the poor.

Last Sunday, 9 September 2018, three people died in three separate fires in informal settlements around Cape Town (Sweethome, Atlantis and Firgrove).

And, speaking of Cape Town, and how the poor are left to their own. The crime statistics just released told us what we already knew, South Africa is a dangerous place, but the on the Cape Flats it's even worse.

The statistics bear that 7 out of the 10 police stations where the most murders were reported were situated on the Cape Flats: Nyanga, Khayelitsha, Delft, Mfuleni, Gugulethu, Philippi and Kraaifontein.

Nyanga retained the place of dishonour it has held for many years now, for being the police station where the most murders were reported. Of the 20,366 murders reported across the country, 308 were recorded the year before. This is a 9,6% increase in reports.

The reasons why crime, desolation and fires are more likely to occur in the historically black and poor areas are not hard to find.  Many are burdened with the fatalistic feelings brought on by life in the ghettos; the bleakness and seeming meaninglessness of everything. These are textbook definitions of what in Catholic Social Teaching is referred to as “structural sin”.

Historical oppression, land dispossession, denial of adequate and meaningful education and exploitation of their labour has created a cesspool of desolation in these communities.

Today, policing is generally indifferent in such areas, if it exists at all. Recreational facilities are limited and mostly consist of places where alcohol is bought and consumed.

The cycle of poverty recreates itself; a consequence of this way of life.

Even after almost 25 years of what is supposedly a pro-poor government, there seems to be no real effort or appetite in changing this sad state of affairs.

The poor remain an asset to the elites in business and in politics. They are available to clean their houses, work in their factories and for the cheap labour they offer to mine their minerals.

Politicians seem to need the poor to make promises to – either to keep them from casting vote at all or to promise improve their lot and do nothing about it after they're voted in. Either way, without the poor, they would have very little to promise to the electorate.

The plight of the poor is not just a case of bad luck. It is systematic.

Indifference to this plight goes against the very grain of Catholic Social Teaching regarding the preferential option for the poor. More fundamentally, it goes against the scriptures.

James' letter to “the 12 tribes scattered abroad” applies to us today. “Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5)

Once again people of faith are called to present themselves, like the mute and deaf man in Sidon (Mark 7:31) to have our collective tongues and ears touched to hear the cries of the poor, have our speech impediments removed and restore in us the courage to say that the crimes against the poor have gone on long enough. Today is as good a day as any other for that Ephphatah moment in our lives and in our country.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.