Naidoo speaks out on Eastern Cape health crisis

| Jay Naidoo
Jay Naidoo.

The Neil Aggett Memorial lecture was delivered by Jay Naidoo at Kingswood College, Grahamstown on 13 September 2013.

Today people of the Eastern Cape are marching on Bhisho as I speak here. They are sending a strong message to the political leaders of this province.

They are marching to demand decisive action by our government to end the corrosive, systemic corruption festering in our ship of state. Neil Aggett would have been with them marching today. So would I, Steve Biko, Chris Hani and the countless warriors of justice that this province has given to our freedom struggle.

The Special Investigation Unit (SIU) has found that over an 18 month period, R800m was stolen by public officials in the Eastern Cape. It is headline news today. As far as we know, no-one is in prison for this grand theft. This is a monumental cover up of Watergate proportions. But corruption in the Eastern Cape has been swept under the carpet over the past decade.

Now the people have said enough is enough. We are happy that the national Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has appointed an investigation team. But would we have had action in the Eastern Cape if activists in the Treatment Action Campaign, Section 27, Denosa and others had not built a campaign.

My answer is a decisive NO.

I am grateful that the spirit of Neil Aggett’s activism lives on. I am grateful that for those courageous investigative journalists who are prepared to speak truth to power; to expose corruption wherever it is. You will be labeled as neoliberals, counterrevolutionaries; agents of imperialism. But you are the ones who speak for our people.

That is why I stand beside you in opposing the Secrecy Laws that this government has passed. It is not aimed at the enemies of our country. It is aimed at muzzling our people from speaking out against corruption like we have seen here. It is aimed to strike fear at ‘whistleblowers’ who oppose the theft of public funds.

And when a Parliament we have elected fails in its oversight role because it is asleep, then we need you my dear children to stand up. You are the first generation born out of democracy. As a leader of yesterday, I say to you that we cannot wait for you to be the leaders of tomorrow. You need to be the leaders of today.

You have power you may not realize now. As much I did not realize when, at your age, I heard the militant speech of the charismatic Steve Biko in a crowded church hall on a steamy summer’s day in Durban. Yesterday, we commemorated the 36th anniversary of his murder. His words ring in my ears as if it was yesterday, “We have nothing to lose but our chains.” You can choose to live to be a bystander or you can choose to make your mark on the world by fighting for justice. I promise you that can be the most exciting choice you will make in your life. It is as true today as it was then.

Soon parties across the political spectrum will be canvassing you for your vote. They will make the usual promises. Ask them tough questions.

  • Will they use public hospitals like our Minister of Health does?
  • We know that will lead to an immediate improvement in public services that they have long deserted.
  • Will they commit to transparency in party funding so that we know who is paying and what they expect in return?
  • Will they ban civil servants and their families from doing business with the State and enforce a period of cooling off before senior officials can join businesses in sectors they regulated?
  • Will they fire sexual predators in our schools and make illegal any sexual relationship between teachers and students in schools?

You can work out your list but I would like to ban the blue light brigades, the expensive cars and security personal we see surrounding so many personalities in our government outside the Presidency. We stopped them when they wanted to do that for us in 1994. What on earth is the security threat they face today?

What we know is that the people of the Eastern Cape are dying. What we know is that six million people depend on the public health services here.

“Death and Dying” a report compiled by the Treatment Action Campaign and Section 27 on the collapse of health care service in the Eastern Cape stirs a rage in me. I have no doubt that Neil Aggett would also be in a rage.

How many clinics could have been built, how many babies died because vaccines and needles were not available or the cold chain was dysfunctional, how many nurses and doctors could have been hired to deal with the dire staff shortages. R800 million can buy a lot of hope for our people.

Neil Aggett was assassinated by a brutal apartheid regime. We still do not know who murdered him. We need to bring to justice his interrogators. We need to know what happened to our hero in our struggle. His murder at police headquarters, John Vorster Square on 5 February 1982 brought a sense of urgency to the trade u nion unity talks. The 90 000 workers who joined the Aggett protest stoppage to protest his murder came from across the emerging union spectrum. Workers sent a strong to the union leaders to stop arguing over non issues. Workers wanted unity to fight a repressive state and intransigent bosses.

I was born of the same generation as Neil Aggett. We were repulsed by the heresy of apartheid that stole our human dignity. In spite of the fears of our parents, we plunged into the struggle for political and social justice. What will take you to take a stand? Our democracy cries out in pain for courageous young people to take a stand.

Our democracy is as old as many of you in this audience. You are ready for a brave new start on your journey of life. There are some tough choices that face you going forward. There are tough choices that also face our beautiful country. These two paths converge. We face a moral moment of truth and fairness in our history today.

The world you live in today is more complex. It is not black and white like in my generation. I have just returned from a meeting with climate scientists. Time is running out. We are living in a matrix web of silence. Your generation faces a perfect storm – the intersection between the financial, economic, fuel, food and climate crises. The rising tide of our human greed now threatens the very foundations of our human survival.

The science confirms that if we do not leave 80% of the fossil fuels in ground then the global temperature will increase by 4°C by the end of this century. The poorest in the world will bear the brunt of the economic and social costs of this climate crisis on their rights, their homes, their food security and the ecosystems. But no-one will escape the ferocity of the changes coming.

Already I see our social fabric is at breaking point. Ferment grows in the world. I feel the anger rising in villages and slums. It flickers across our TV screens. My heart weeps as I sit with women in Turkana in the north of Kenya and share the sorrow of these proud people. The lake is drying up, the fish are dying and the grazing lands have all but disappeared.

Now the wars have started over water and we see innocent women and children raped and murdered in their sleep. It is happening in so many places. How many times have we heard people say, “We do not trust our leaders. They serve the interests of the rich. If you have money, then you can buy what you want. Democracy is on sale to the highest bidder. We are only needed when they want our votes.”

Tomorrow’s world stands at the edge of a precipice of dashed hopes. We have forgotten that the first law of humanity is that we should not kill our children.

You are the most connected generation in the history of humanity. In spite of our technological progress we have gone backwards in human values. Narrow corporate interests, driven by financial engineers, with their short - term profit demands, now dictate the narrative and agenda of our world. The richest 300 people on earth have as much wealth as the poorest 3 billion. This is no accident; those in power write the rules. And their activities are life-threatening.

What path will you chose - the one of comfort that deepens our global crisis and that only has room for a handful of you? Or the one that Neil Aggett chose more than four decades ago.

Neil Aggett made the choice of following his conscience. He chose the path of living the human values of respect, humility and compassion he believed in. Although his life was short, he found its true meaning. He had discovered his pathin the hostels and factories. Like I did, he learnt the real life lessons of building organization and social transformation from the most exploited, most illiterate and poorest of our country. But here we discovered real wisdom and applied those lessons to build the mighty movement of workers that was central to paralyzing apartheid.

Neil Aggett saw his work in the public hospitals as a theatre of struggle for human dignity littered with the battered bodies of the oppressed and exploited. We had both started off studying medical science. The only difference was that he finished his degree and I ended up dissecting society instead of bodies before finishing my academic career. But we both understood that the structural causes of our disease burden and human suffering was poverty, inequality and political and social exclusion.

My greatest hope is that the spirit of service and discipline that Neil Aggett symbolized would arise again in your generation. In you gathered here and across the country I see the hope for our future. In you, I see the hope that our schools and universities will again be reborn as the nurseries of fearless democratic debate.

I stand before you to support you. To encourage you to embrace that impossible dream spelt out in our Constitution and the UN declaration of Human rights that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. That we recognize that the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is based on the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

This is a gift of Neil Aggett and our generation. Your generation needs to translate the political freedoms enshrined into Constitution into a meaningful fabric of hope and opportunity for the future generations.

Here in a province you have produced countless giants of our freedom struggle - from Makhanda Nxele who united the Xhosa tribes to resist colonialism in the Frontier Wars of the 18th century to Nelson Mandela, the founding father of our democracy. From Neil Aggett who studied here in Kingswood College to Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe, Govan Mbeki and Chris Hani.

How do we deal with health care crisis you face here? “The crisis of the health system is not an apartheid-legacy, but a democratic failure. It is a crisis of management and political oversight. It is a crisis of the Constitutional promise,” says Mark Heywood the executive director of Section 27. I agree with him.

What I know is that a society fails when we stop to care. It fails when those in power seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the public. It fails when the people lose trust in their leaders. It fails when leaders are so disconnected from the grassroots that the people feel disempowered in the democratic process. It fails when cadre development replaces competent civil servants with those who owe loyalty not to the Constitution and the people but party bosses.

You need to make a choice. Madiba often reminded us, “That what counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

Today we see the widespread poverty in our country. We know that half our people will go to bed hungry tonight. We know that our education system is failing millions of young people in our country. We weep at the growing corruption in our country that squanders the resources meant for our people. We weep as our iconic founding father lies in a critical condition now in his home.

In our slums, villages, the schools, trains, and community halls, we weep because we yearn for that leadership that could live his values every day; leaders who are characterized by the absence of political arrogance; leaders who will serve the interests of our citizens first; leaders who will unify our country men and women to build the dreams of the better life we promised our people in 1994.

Madiba was a symbol of our struggle for human dignity. His words remind us constantly, “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

We are not looking for a new messiah. In a time where we desperately search for heroes and heroines, perhaps we have been searching too long in the wrong places. It is time to refocus our gaze and look to our people, where we will find legions of potential Mandela’s who are working selflessly in a world that may otherwise seem to have stopped caring.

Your road is difficult. As you pursue academic success I know you will succeed. But true success comes only when your success lift all in society. Then the light of success shines with a deep spiritual clarity from within.

You are not the leaders of tomorrow. You are the leaders of today. I believe in you and respect what you have to contribute to building a better life for our people.

I trust you to do the right thing and wish you well in your journey of life.

Jay Naidoo is Chair of the Board of Directors and Chair of the Partnership Council of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).

TOPICS:  Economy Education Government Health Human Rights Society

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