The Role of the Family and Community in Social Organisation

On the 23rd February 2011, sixteen women from several Cape Town townships are said to have descended at the office of the Chief Whip of the African National Congress (ANC) in Parliament, Dr Mathole Motshekga, Member of Parliament (MP), to appeal for the intercession and intervention of the ANC in the deepening moral degeneration in the townships of Cape Town.

The Honourable MPs guests are said to have graphically illustrated how school children gather at parks to take drugs before going to classes, return to these parks for the same purpose during break, and disappear into shebeens and taverns after school.

Challenging the proliferation of shebeens and taverns rather than recreational facilities in the black townships, the women are said to have asked their elected MPs if government wants to kill their children and the nation to enrich a few individuals and their families by allowing the shebeens to proliferate.

Faced with the same problem, Mpumalanga Safety and Security MEC, Vusi Shongwe MPL, has suggested more drastic measures. While visiting schools in the Bushbuckridge area early this year, he is said to have threatened that children found loitering during school hours in uniform will be arrested. He is quoted saying: "We will arrest children... found in wrong places during school hours. We will also arrest those who are underage, yet they go to shebeens and taverns”.

As a solution, Dr Motshekga, in ANC Today (Vol 11 no 8, 4 - 10 march 2011) suggests that the levels of moral degeneration in our communities require a serious national intervention that goes beyond advocacy of healthy life styles. He says that, “There is an urgent and great need to occupy children and the youth after school and over the weekends through establishment of cultural centres in townships and informal centres through which school children and out-of-school youth could be engaged for spiritual growth and development by means of practical programmes. These could include spiritual music, indigenous games, cultural and other creative activities”.

A simple point that seems to elude either of them, is the fact that there are laws and by-laws preventing shebeens and taverns from being situated within the immediate vicinity of schools. There are laws preventing the sale of alcohol to under age children. Why are these laws not being enforced in our townships and rural areas? Other than paying a pilgrimage to Parliament which they are entitled to in terms of the constitution, what are the communities themselves doing about the existence of these kinds of undesirable facilities within their own communities?

The second point that Dr Motshekga ignores is why close to 27 000 schools, most of them with electricity these days, or even without electricity, close down the doors of learning at 2pm, instead of opening them up to be centres of continuous learning for school and out-of-school young people instead of investing in additional infrastructure. One such school which is doing this is Dendron Senior Secondary School in the Capricorn District Limpopo. Children in this school have never seen a TV soapy in their lives. They go home at 3:30pm and are back at school after cooking supper to study until 8:30pm and participate in cultural activities. They are back at school at 7:30am the following day. They are at school on Saturday, exam time or no exam time - all the classes not just Matric. They learn in groups, each one taking a turn to lead the group. Teachers finish the syllabus in July every year. This school is one of only six formally black schools in the Sunday Times Top 100 Schools.

From investing in facilities and programmes, Dr Motshekga seems to have great hope in the birth of a single interfaith organisation, the South African Interfaith Council (SAIC), that brings the National Religious Leaders Forum (NRLF) and the National Interfaith Leaders Council (NILC) together, calling it “A formidable force for the moral regeneration movement”. While it is difficult to fault the lofty goals of the Moral Regeneration Movement (MRM), which were to counter corruption, drugs, child abuse, murder, domestic violence, teenage pregnancies, greed, nepotism, gossiping and all sorts of social ills, as usual, the devil is in the detail of what needs to be done and its implementation.

To explain my shaken faith in the MRM, or any form of institutionalisation of moral behaviour by the state, one needs to revisit the history of the MRM in South Africa. The MRM has its roots in a meeting between President Nelson Mandela and religious leaders in 1997. Our current President Jacob Zuma took the mantle from Nelson Mandela and drove the MRM’s establishment in 2002/3. It managed, in the years since its inception to set up structures in all nine provinces. Up to 2005, the MRM focused on marketing and awareness strategies that put it at the centre of the coordination of moral regeneration activities in South Africa.

Once it had created sufficient awareness, it then began to promote positive values and keep audits of moral regeneration programmes. In 2008 the main focus was the adoption of the “Charter of Positive Values”, together with creation of more local structures, more community dialogue and endorsement of work by organisations, and marketing using newsletters, brochures, social media, banners, radio and television.

In an article by Nawaal Dreyer in Business Report, in March 2010, it was reported that the MRM had almost nothing to show for the R22 million that government had sunk into it up until that point. In the same article, Dreyer wrote: “Parliament’s Arts and Culture portfolio committee heard on Wednesday that in the body's seven years of existence, its books had never been audited and that even the Department of Arts and Culture – which is meant to oversee the initiative – is not sure what impact it has had on moral issues in South Africa.”

Having used these marketing tools, and despite radio and TV adverts, the MRM has 13 people who “like” it on Facebook.

Even though it is doubtful that a multi-faith organisation can agree on a single moral ethos, this is not to cast aspersions on an organisation that has hardly started to function. My point is that we have already instituted a national intervention by institutionalising moral behaviour using taxpayer’s money and failed to achieve our objectives. We cannot be doing the same thing and expect to get different results and escape being described as insane. Also, given our diversity, it is unlikely, that at a national level, we can agree on what is moral and what is not.

My suggestion is that we need to look elsewhere, and within. For centuries, our ancestors crafted institutions such as family, extended family and community, which today, still stand as one of the most powerful paradigms of social civilisation and organisation. Admittedly, families were uprooted by the machinations of the apartheid system. Admittedly, the family as a unit of social mobilisation has caused battles and wars between brother and brother. At the same time, it has prevented wars through inter-marriage between clans and tribes set up clear definition of roles from birth. What has happened since colonisation, apartheid and 1994 is a continuous and unabated erosion and corrosion of the capacity of families and communities to handle issues and challenges that used to be handled by the family, extended family, community, clan, tribe and as a last resort, the state.

Today, these institutions have been eroded largely as a result of ever increasing paternalistic state interference in the affairs of people’s daily lives.

At a political level, despite mounting disaffection with elected leadership (councillors) as opposed to traditional leadership in rural areas, which is directly connected to family, community, clan and tribe, we continue to impose this alien system on our people despite lessons elsewhere in Africa. Admittedly, this system was interfered with by apartheid divide and rule, but so was everything else. Instead of dealing decisively with this, we seem to move from one community to the next, dousing rising flames of discontent with paraffin, while wondering why local government fails to deliver services that people deserve.

Under the auspices of Expanded Public Works, government pays people to wake up and till their own fields or remove evasive plants from river streams. Government pays people to look after their own orphans, while our elders, and source of wisdom, experience and knowledge, sit around from dusk to dawn in Old Age Homes, without a purpose.

We seem to wonder why school feeding schemes that exclude the members of the immediate community in which a school is situated are failing. Government Departments override School Governing Body decisions on what is acceptable behaviour at their own local schools, willy-nilly and without a decency to give a reason. Knowing how it removes leverage from them as customers to demand the best possible effort from teachers, it is now a public secret that even poor parents associate ‘free schooling’ with ‘bad schooling’. As a result, school children from villages in the Eastern Cape are migrant students in Pietermaritzburg, not to mention empty ‘free schools’ in Qwa Qwa.

Due to the incentive of child support grants to produce children, teachers are now burdened with a responsibility of being midwives to learners who are not having their 1st child, but second and 3rd child. For those who want it, minors, as young as 12 years, do not need their parents' permission to have an abortion while they need it to remove a tooth.

I am particularly haunted by a picture of Katleho Mankoe, The Star, 7 March 2011, page 13 with a clenched Uhuru fist, headlined “With a dream, a little luck, and people who care, anything is possible”. I am haunted, because this is the same fist we raised in 1976 and then 1994 with a promise of a better life for all. If we continue as communities to fail young people, what is next? Tunisia, Egypt or Libya?

The people who care in this case are a company called Tracker through their programme “Men in the Making”. What kind of men are we making if it takes a private company to adopt a 15 year-old who was thrown out of a shack by his community when his mother died? What happened to this child’s relatives and community? Can we rightfully expect him to return, as the scientist that he has committed to become, to uplift this very same community?

This is not to say the state or business should not assist marginalised members of our communities. Solidarity with poor people need not remove responsibility from the poor. It should not generate and sustain dependency and remove their dignity. In Brazil for example, a conditional cash transfer programme called Bolsa Familia creates incentives for recipients to enhance their capacity and capabilities towards more responsible citizenship. The state provides a grant that is payable monthly on condition that the recipient ensures that beneficiary children are well fed, immunised and at school. In addition, the care-givers, who are members of the family, not strangers, are required to utilise opportunities for skills training and access available entry jobs. Millions of poor people are being migrated from being welfare recipients to become productive citizens.

What is pertinent about this policy intervention is not just its impact which includes reduction of hunger, ill-health and school drop-out rates, changes in attitudes, improved gender relations and assertiveness in the home, work place and the wider community, but the manner in which the intervention is centred on bolstering the most important aspect of Latin American social organisation - the family.

We seem to think that a solution ought to come from somewhere else in order for it to be effective. If we can’t find it from the West, we must look to the East, and continue to ignore what has worked for us for generations (with necessary adaptations).The assumption is that if it is African, it is wayward and backward.

Now therefore, before we decide to negate the responsibility of parents, the family, and community by renovating government buildings in towns and cities, black townships and rural areas to create unsustainable recreational facilities, cultural centres and boot camps, as the Honourable MP suggests, what government needs to start with, is to conduct an audit of existing policies by asking a simple question:

“With this policy decision, are we interfering with or weakening the capacity of the family and community as the most fundamental unit of social organisation, to solve its own problems?”

If the answer is yes, we ought to throw the policy out. Once we have thrown out all these ineffective, but well intended policies, we can begin to make new policies that do not make us strangers in our own land.

- Andile Ncontsa facilitates social dialogue and active citizenry. He is the Chief Executive Officer of Litha Communications and writes in his private capacity.

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