Sunday, 26 October 2014

A curious case of … Deflection and prejudice

T.O. Molefe, City Press

Who would have thought the day would come when a minister in an ANC-led government would read from the opposition DA hymn book of the pathologies of black culture – and an old, seemingly discarded edition at that?

Well, that’s exactly what happened when Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu this week promised that no person younger than 40 would receive a free house during her time in charge of human settlements.

This isn’t the first time she has said this.

In July, shortly after her first budget speech since her return to the human settlements portfolio, Sisulu channelled DA leader Helen Zille.

In an interview that echoed the content of her speech that day, Sisulu said: “What makes an 18-year-old think the state owes them a house? It’s a culture of entitlement … We can’t continue with a dependency culture.”

Given that 99.7% of households living in informal dwellings – and thus in need of decent housing – are black, Sisulu is referring, even if indirectly, to a mentality she believes is prevalent among poor black people.

This often-repeated belief, for which no evidence exists, is a noxious mix of class and racial prejudice. It can be traced back to the colonial stereotype of the “lazy ka**ir”.

According to this stereotype, poor blacks will, left to their own devices, laze about in indolence and take advantage of the largesse of the colonial master whenever possible.

In defending her belief this time around, Sisulu dug up and read from the lost pages of the DA hymn book.

She denied that colonialism and apartheid have had intergenerational economic and social effects that are evident in young black people’s lack of decent housing.

She said if they were younger than 40, blacks lost nothing to colonialism and apartheid.

Only a person gilded in the comforts of a R2.1 million government salary and benefits contained in the Ministerial Handbook, including free government housing, could believe that.

In her mind, poor blacks under 40 act like they are entitled to free things from government. And government, by acceding to this purported entitlement, has created a “dependency culture” among them.

Poor people are desperate for a roof over their heads and will sometimes build makeshift dwellings on land that doesn’t belong to them. At some point they will be evicted, as happened in Lwandle, Cape Town, in June. Picture: Lulama Zenzile
Poor people are desperate for a roof over their heads and will sometimes build makeshift dwellings on land that doesn’t belong to them. At some point they will be evicted, as happened in Lwandle, Cape Town, in June. Picture: Lulama Zenzile
This fallacious admix of denialism and unsubstantiated claims has been used to attack just about every aspect of spending on social programmes, from social grants and the provision of antiretroviral medication to plans for a national health insurance scheme.

Typically, such attacks have come from opposition parties like the DA.

But cutting back on spending on the free housing programme has nonetheless been in government’s sights since 2010, when former human settlements minister Tokyo Sexwale said continuing the programme indefinitely might “create a beggars’ culture where people just expect to be given free houses from the state”.

Again, it is easy to espouse such unfounded beliefs when, if you are Sexwale, are assured the privilege of a R70 million mansion in Sandhurst with a plush bed to rest on at the end of each day.

It is easy to ignore that an important component of government’s housing programme is fulfilling the state’s constitutional obligation to assist those who cannot afford housing, regardless of age, gender or race.

So not only is the stereotype about poor black people unsubstantiated and rooted in prejudice, Sisulu’s proposed response may be unconstitutional.

It discriminates unfairly on the basis of age against under-40s who cannot afford housing. And it reneges on the state’s constitutional obligation to progressively realise the right of all to housing.

This obligation has neither age stipulations nor sunset clauses. But it is subject to the constraints of available resources, which is where Sisulu should direct the conversation if she is interested in a debate about the sustainability of government’s housing programme.

However, directing the conversation there will undoubtedly lead to questions about whether other items in government spending are defensible.

For example, the public works department alone lost R34 billion over the past 13 years to irregular spending.

The SABC incurred irregular expenditure of R3.3 billion in the 2013/14 financial year, a mere R100 million more than the irregular expenditure recorded in the previous financial year.

Almost R25 billion was incurred in unauthorised, irregular and fruitless expenditure in 2012/13 across all national departments and public entities. ”That’s almost how much is allocated to housing delivery this year.”

We can also delve deeper by questioning whether government’s other spending priorities, such as spending on military equipment or the soccer World Cup, rank higher than the constitutional imperative to assist those who cannot afford housing.

These conversations are more difficult, which is probably why it is easier for Sisulu to caricature poor black people.