JOTTINGS FROM JOHANNESBURG
Government parties the poor eat dirt
By Peter van der Merwe
Published: 01-MAR-04

Has South African President Thabo Mbeki lost touch with his people? To judge by his refusal to explain his policies on HIV, Zimbabwe and even Haiti, it would certainly appear that he regards the public as a nuisance.

He's been doing his best to shrug off his aloof image with a series of election rallies - sorry, imbizos - and pressing flesh with the common man as he prepares for his return to the presidency after the April 14 general elections.

An imbizo, for those of you not familiar with the term, is a traditional gathering; in the South African government's dictionary, it's a forum for dialogue between the government and the people. And what a return to the presidency it promises to be for Mbeki. The presidential inauguration has been cunningly scheduled for April 27, which just happens to be the 10th anniversary of South Africa's democracy.

It has been billed as the "party to end all parties". All the world's heads of state, dictators and despots included, will be invited to attend. Imagine, Robert Mugabe and Tony Blair dancing the night away ... Of course, as any politician will tell you, democracy doesn't come cheap. The celebration will cost ZAR140 million, by all accounts, of which R60 million has been budgeted for the presidential inauguration and a further R80 million for other celebrations.

ZAR140 million. This at a time when Finance Minister Trevor Manuel is battling to balance the books after a lean 2003. At a time when the chairman of the SA Medical Association (Sama) says gross under-funding is mainly responsible for the gradual collapse of the country's healthcare system. When there is also allegedly no money to fence off a lethal section of railway line in Soweto, just outside Johannesburg, where 11 children have already died under the wheels of trains this year.

When millions of South Africans still live in shacks of cardboard and tin, at the mercy of flash floods and devastating fires. When in neighbouring Lesotho, a state of emergency has been declared because of drought. Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili says 600 000 people require 57 000 tonnes of food until the 2005 harvest.

While more than six million people in Southern Africa are threatened with severe food shortages in what could be an unprecedented regional disaster, the world's elite will party the night away. Let them eat cake, I say. Not eating cake right now is notorious apartheid killer Gideon Nieuwoudt, who has been charged for the murder of three Port Elizabeth activists in the 1980s, at the height of the apartheid regime's oppression.

It is not clear if Nieuwoudt's intended prosecution is the first in a series of prosecutions of human rights abusers who were denied amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for not coming clean about their heinous deeds.

There's no doubt that the man is a liar and a mercenary. But at the time of the killings, he was a lowly warrant officer, which begs the question: when will the top-level apartheid-era goons, the men who actually gave the orders, be brought to book? Why are the foot-soldiers being prosecuted while the generals lurk in their suburban hideaways? This is an issue which won't go away any time soon.

Of course, all of this military terminology leads neatly to another festering sore on the face of the government, the controversial multi-billion rand arms deal, which a UN-accredited NGO is trying to scupper in the Cape High Court.

Economists Allied for Arms Reduction-South Africa (Ecaar-SA) and its chairperson, Terry Crawford-Browne, want the arms deal loan agreements scrapped for a number of reasons: gross tendering irregularities, no parliamentary or executive authority for the arms deal, and - most damningly - government ministers "failed to apply their minds" to an affordability study, despite repeated warnings that expenditure on armaments would crowd out social expenditure on housing, health and education.

Ecaar-SA is particularly severe on finance minister Manuel, accusing him of effectively selling South Africa's birthright for a pot of lentil soup - or, in this case, a basket of frigates, jets and other sundry weapons of mass destruction. Manuel, says Ecaar-SA, "encumbered" South Africa's existing and future assets and "ceded control of economic and financial policies for the next 20 years to the British government and the International Monetary Fund".

The court is due to rule on Ecaar-SA's application this month. Whatever the outcome, we haven't heard the last of it. In the meantime, life's a party for the government.



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