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I could have been Thandi

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This truth touched my heart as I concluded a conversation with Thabo (not his real name), an unemployed 33-year-old father of two, in Port Elizabeth’s New Brighton township last month. He spends his days turning to the sun, entertaining unending conversations about the past and the continuing nightmare of life under the faded South African rainbow. His life is similar to Thandi’s.

Thandi is “born free” and a millennial, the population segment that should, under normal circumstances, be seen as a proverbial “light bulb in a dark room” due to their ability to drive consumer trends and, therefore, affect economics and politics in significant ways. But she is a barely educated, unemployed and unemployable 18-year-old, one of the pieces of the crumbling mosaic that is SA today. She is unable to free herself from the shackles of poverty, itself a residue of apartheid bondage and the spectacle of the failure of the government and economy. People like her tend to drop out of high school, and those who pass matric have scant chances of getting university-level qualifications, the gateway to better economic prospects. She has no chance of getting a job, and if she’s lucky, she’ll only get one, on average, five years after leaving school. Quite possibly, Thandi and her offspring will only be freed from the yoke of poverty when she receives a state old-age pension at the age of 60.

Thandi is an imaginary character created by the wise men and women who gave us the National Development Plan (NDP). This was an attempt to tell the story of the millions of youths who have been failed by the system. It was meant to be a story of hope, with the NDP — now four years old — guiding us to the “new Jerusalem”, and creating 11 million new jobs by 2030. This would have meant the economy needed to grow at an average of 5.7% a year, but it is likely to grow just 0.6% this year.

Last week, the government released statistics showing more people are being spat out by our economy and condemned to lives of despair, with about 355 000 people joining the ranks of Thabo and Thandi between January and March.

The story of arrested economic development could have been my story, and yours too if you were born black. In our lineage, my siblings and I make up the first generation of degreed-professionals — the first generation able to save for retirement. It is a story of hope; hope that our offspring will have a life and opportunities.

It is anchored on skills development — basically education, the uplifting factor millions of our compatriots, such as Thabo and Thandi, are deprived of due to a number of social factors. Mine could have been Thabo’s story too, had he not dropped out of high school to work so he could look after his five siblings.

The difference between my middle-class status in the “new SA” and a life of squalor is razor-thin. It could have taken something as simple as illness striking one or both parents while I was growing up, or the gun-toting looters who made a habit of visiting my shopkeeper mother letting go of the 9mm’s hammer.

Right now, our political economy is reproducing patterns of development that cannot be entirely divorced from apartheid’s spatial planning. Some of our public schools are a disaster — simply laboratories in which Hendrik Verwoerd’s dreams continue to live.

 Some of these schools are second-class facilities that do not even offer mathematics, a subject that requires just a competent teacher, a board and chalk. It emerged last year that 25% of government schools do not offer maths for grades 10 to 12, which I find plainly criminal.

So, as you wonder who the guilty party is in the mess that is the “South African Revenue Service war”, please spare a thought for the real victims of our dis-functional contemporary politics, Thabo and Thandi.