Tena koe Thabo Mbeki,
I understand a nomination has been put forward for me to receive a South African honour later this year, the Companions of O R Tambo Award, on behalf of HART and the anti-apartheid movement of New Zealand for our work campaigning to end apartheid in South Africa.
I note the particular honour is conferred by the President of South Africa and awarded to “foreign citizens who have promoted South African interests and aspirations through co-operation, solidarity and support”.
We are proud of the role played by the movement here to assist the struggle against apartheid and I appreciate the sentiment behind the nomination. However after the most careful consideration I respectfully request the nomination proceed no further. Were an award to be made I would decline to accept it either personally or on behalf of the movement.
New Zealanders who campaigned against apartheid did so to bring real and meaningful change in the lives of South Africa’s impoverished and disenfranchised black communities. We were appalled and angered at the callous brutality of a system based on racism and exploitation of black South Africans for the benefit of South African corporations.
However while political rights have been won and celebrated, social and economic rights have been sidelined. It is now 14 years since the first African National Congress government was elected to power but for most the situation is no better, and frequently worse, than it was under white minority rule.
The number of South Africans living on less than $1 a day more than doubled to 2.4 million in the first 10 years of ANC government. Despite strong economic growth overall poverty levels have not improved and the gap between rich and poor has increased with many black families being driven more deeply into poverty. Unemployment remains high at around 26%.
It seems the entire economic structure which underpinned apartheid is essentially unchanged. Oppression based on race has morphed seamlessly into oppression based on economic circumstance. The faces at the top have changed from white to black but the substance of change is an illusion.
None of us expected things to change overnight but we did expect the hope for change to always burn brightly as people looked ahead for their children and grandchildren. This is now a pale gleam, dimmed by the destructive power of free-market economics.
My own country New Zealand preceded the ANC in adopting free-market economic reforms. Since 1984 we have experienced a particularly virulent dose of these vicious policies which have brought wealth to the few at the expense of the many.
Hundreds of thousands of New Zealand families have been driven out of decent employment into poverty where they struggle to raise families on part-time, poorly paid work. They are worse off now than they were 20 years ago. The same policies have brought the same outcomes to South Africa. For the majority life is tougher now than at any time since the ANC came to power.
The promises made by those who drove through the reforms in New Zealand were a lie just as they are in South Africa. Wherever these policies have been put in place anywhere in the world they have resulted in a reverse Robin Hood – a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.
When we protested and marched into police batons and barbed wire here in the struggle against apartheid we were not fighting for a small black elite to become millionaires. We were fighting for a better South Africa for all its citizens.
I take heart from the many community groups in South Africa fighting against privatisation of community assets; supporting settlements against forced removals; opposing police harassment and brutality; struggling for decent healthcare, water supplies and education; campaigning for decent pay, reasonable working conditions and affordable houses. These people, such as the Durban Shackdwellers, are looking for respect and dignity as human beings. Many carry the ideals of the Freedom Charter, once the bedrock document for ANC policy, close to their hearts.
Apartheid was accurately described as a “crime against humanity” by the United Nations and the ANC. I could not in all conscience attend a ceremony to receive an award conferred by your office while a similar crime is in progress.
Receiving an award would inevitably associate myself and the movement here with ANC government policies. At one time this may have been a source of pride but it would now be a source of personal embarrassment which I am not prepared to endure.