If, like me, you don’t like to be lulled into excessive states of comfort, then South Africa is a great place to be. This country, unless you’ve insulated yourself behind physical and cognitive barriers, is an unrelenting assault to the senses and one’s sensibility, and you don’t even need to leave your seat for the pleasure.
Just the other day I was assailed by Jenny from Amanzimtoti while I was driving to Stellenbosch on a cool, clear morning. I’d invited her into the car thanks to the wonder of FM waves and the good folks at the SABC, who were gracious enough to take a break from playing hokey pokey with their acting COO—you put your acting COO in, you take your acting COO out and you shake your board about—to fill the airwaves with my fellow countrymen and women’s thoughts on health and the state of South African families.
Jenny wasn’t actually from Amanzimtoti and I don’t think her name was Jenny, either. I’ve exercised artistic license because I have forgotten her name and where she was calling from. So in the stead of these minor facts, I’ve summoned “Jenny from Toti”, who starts everything she says with “listen here…”, to portray the essence of this agonising auntie.
“Listen here, Vuyo,” she said after twice correcting the show’s host, Vuyo Mbuli, on how to say her last name. “The hospital here is so full these days. I was in the eye ward and there were so many people!” Her bitterness about this was unvarnished, like the bark of an old, still-growing tree. “It wasn’t always like this,” she said. “I don’t know where all these people came from. I think it’s those, those…”
My anal sphincter clenched by reflex, fully expecting to be rammed by something racist.
“…those people from neighbouring countries, like Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Mozambique,” she said.
Quelle surprise! A two-for! Xenophobia with sprinkles of racism.
But Jenny, bless her heart, was mild discomfort compared to the torture brought on by Mbuli and the show’s callers when the topic turned to South African families, which are in a bad way. According to the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa families have shown a growing pattern of dissolution, which is believed to contribute to the social disorder that afflicts the country.
One of the council’s proposed responses to this is that the government should introduce a family grant that would make it less prohibitively burdensome, in terms of real and opportunity costs, for family units to stay together.
However, it would seem the word “grant” to South Africans of a certain demographic is blood in the water. Mbuli and the callers zoomed in on that word, opened their jaws and took bites out of grant recipients, with no regard for how much—or, in this case, how little—they, the host and the callers, knew about the effects of social grants in South Africa.
Why not scrap the child-care grant and convert it into a bursary? Mbuli said.
A friend in the UK was propositioned by a girl who wanted nothing but his spunk so she could have a baby and claim benefits. I’m sure that’s happening here, a caller said.
Social grants create a culture of dependency and should be given only in exchange for work, another said.
Monde Makiwane, the HSRC researcher on the show to field questions from listeners, is a patient man, because he calmly pointed out the glaring flaws in these comments without faltering, even when he had to repeat himself.
I on the other hand was run through by discomfort, and shame. Shame at the ignorance displayed by my fellow countryfolk. Shame at their prejudice and lack of empathy. Shame their obdurate attitudes when confronted with information that should have prompted them to reconsider things.
Of course I could have switched the radio off and spared myself, but, like I said, I find the discomfort useful. In this case I was reminded of the possibility that more people than I would have expected might believe wrongly, very wrongly, that social grants have done little else but create a culture of dependency and entitlement in South Africa.
It also reminded me of this country’s dearth of good quality public radio programming, and how these two recollections might be interrelated. Ignorance and prejudice fed into poorly researched public broadcasting, especially one with the massive reach of radio, are self-affirming. This needs to change.