The irony of South African citizenship: Citizens with no rights

In a Neoliberal world, what really constitutes a citizen?

Citizenship is a hotly debated (and currently loaded) topic worldwide. Related to this idea of citizenship is the Trumpesque phenomena which is sweeping across the globe and which seems to have a common denominator amongst its main supporters. This common denominator is the ideal of wanting to prioritize one group of people (their survival and success) at all costs, even sometimes to the detriment of others around them.

I do not intend, in this post, to delve into the politics and complexities of nation states, nor do I wish to make a political statement. I simply intend to extract a few key points from the notion of citizenship and to make mention of how a distorted view of citizenship affects schools, communities and our learners (which as noted in a previous blog post, are part of a cycle of unending poverty and inequality that is infamous for being the highest in the world).

Firstly, the term citizen refers to a person who belongs to a particular country. This person enjoys certain rights, privileges and powers that come with being a part of this country. For example, South African citizens, have the right (and power) to vote and to enjoy the advantages that come with this right. Citizenship also guarantees you certain privileges with other nations. For example, South African citizens are able to travel to over 100 countries without the need to obtain a visa. A citizen also has the power to make meaningful inputs in the economic, social and religious aspects of life in that country. The idea of citizenship therefore is closely linked to the ideas of sovereignty, self-government, independence and success. It is when the latter becomes polluted, distorted and poisoned that we see social atrocities (such as inequality) abounding in society.

According to the UN, there are around 10 million stateless people across the globe[1]. These people do not enjoy the rights and privileges that come with one’s home nation. Instead they are considered ‘second-class citizens’, due to usually no fault of their own. Syrian refugees, former Yugoslavians and the Rohingya are in some way or the other considered stateless and therefore ‘second-class’ (because of the discrimination they face on a daily basis).

What does any of this have to do with South Africa’s education and our learners?

Well, the majority of South African’s live well below the poverty line and the reality is that living in a modern Neoliberal, Capitalist world has meant that the notion of a public good (what is good for the public) has changed over time. States no longer need to provide (healthcare, education, sanitation, etc) for their citizenry as in previous years. The main reason for the provision of public goods (by the government) has, in the past, generally been to sustain the nation during and/or after a war or during a natural disaster such as a famine, drought or health epidemic.

Today, however, there are many privately owned companies that function on market forces known as demand-and-supply to ensure that people are provided for. Everything and anything thinkable can be found on the market in a Neoliberal world. Healthcare, food provision, education, sanitation, correctional facilities, etc. These Neoliberal[2] and Capitalist institutions, however, only have one motivator – Profit. It is what defines Capitalism (Wilson 2011). It is what encapsulates Neoliberalism. We therefore see many (if not the majority) of people who end up not being able to purchase these commodified ‘products’ of healthcare, education, sanitation, correctional facilities (Giroux, 2015), etc, simply because they cannot afford the ridiculously steep prices!

Healthcare, Education and other life-giving rights should (I contend) never be sold as products, but our nations reality is that those who live in poverty and who are well below the poverty line are forced to follow the status quo, even if they cannot afford these products (or what I consider rights). They are often branded as second-class citizens (Bond, 2013) because of their poverty. They are stateless. They cannot enjoy the privileges and rights that should accompany being a citizen of the country.

In other words, the transformation of the public good (to a now neoliberal, capitalist-provided public good) has changed the fabric of citizenry. Citizens that have money will have access to the public good. These citizens are able to express their rights and responsibilities in ways that afford them opportunities and privileges. The majority of poor South Africans have no such opportunity. They cannot get a decent quality education; they do not have access to quality healthcare. They are second-class citizens. They have no true access to the public good (by which I mean the notion of that which benefits all of society, not just a handful of capitalist disciples).

The entire education system suffers when our own poor citizens cannot access the same quality of education as our rich citizens (Barry, 2018). Being citizens of the same country, should we not be able to access the same rights? Should we not be able to enjoy the same benefits? Is it only the rich that can access their rights? This is the Trumpesque phenomena at play. Only a select group of people seem to be benefitting in society, to the detriment of all others. In South Africa’s case it is the rich who are benefitting, making the gap between the rich and the poor even greater. The rich in general, don’t seem to be too dismayed and are seemingly acting to hold onto their benefits without considering the poorest amongst them.

Personally, working in a school that is filled to the brim with citizens who are making their rights, privileges and responsibilities count in every conceivable way, has really opened my eyes to the dark underbelly of South Africa’s citizenship irony. I cannot confine myself to working only in, with and around my privileged environment. I must venture out and provide assistance to those learners (citizens) that are considered second-class, irrespective of where they might be. I must break with the Trumpesque mentality of ‘me first’ and ensure that everyone I come into contact with has the opportunity of enjoying the rights and privileges that are afforded to them as citizens of the Republic of South Africa. I must consider others needs before my own wants.

May we all be first-class citizens in pursuit of peace, social justice and harmony.

Works Cited

Barry, K.B., 2018. The Right to Education Movements and Policies: Promises and Realities. NORRAG.

Bond, P, 2013. Debt, Uneven Development and Capitalist Crisis in South Africa: from Moody’s macroeconomic monitoring to Marikana microfinance mashonisas , Third World Quarterly, 34:4, 569-592

Giroux, G, 2015. Education and the Crisis of Public Values: Challenging the Assault on Teachers, Students, and Public Education. 2nd ed. New York: Peter Lang Inc.

Wilson, K, 2011. ‘Race’, Gender and Neoliberalism: changing visual representations in development, Third World Quarterly, 32:2, 315-331.

[1] There are conflicting reports as some UN documents refer to 12 million and others around 10 million. In any case, the number is unnecessarily high.


South Africa and unmet basic human rights 25 years later: Food safety and why it matters?

What is food safety and how is it linked to food security?

A quick scan of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security will demonstrate how inextricably food safety and food security are linked. Food safety is firmly located within the universally recognized and adopted definition of food security by the Food and Health Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The FAO in its’ fact sheet defines a country to be food secure when all people at all times have economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, which underscores that without food safety there can’t be effective food security. 

What is the link between food safety and human rights? 

In the devastating aftermath of World War II, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting in Paris adopted resolution 217 (A) in 1948 culminating in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration was intended to be universally applicable and to supersede all domestic law to create a base of equitable rights and standards worldwide. Article 25 (1) of the declaration provides the legal basis affording all humans the right to access sufficient food. 

Domestically in South Africa, the post-Apartheid constitution (27) (1) (b) (Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996) endowed all who live in the country with an inalienable political right to “sufficient food and water”, though problematically it doesn’t articulate what amount is sufficient or which tier of government is responsible to fulfil the mandate. Brittany Kesselman linked this political right to food justice within the socioeconomic context of South Africa. Her study noted that South Africa still has a long road to travel to meet this constitutional and universal right imperative. To this end, in 2013, a report by the Legal Resources Centre noted that the state of unmet human rights in South Africa was a ‘state of unconstitutional affairs’. 

What are the implications of poor or inadequate food safety governance? 

Food security is more than agriculture. It’s about access, safety, nutrition and government (as well as nongovernmental) policies that promote a healthy wellbeing for all. For Maslow (1948), food was a base physiological need, which he argued if not met, the pyramid that culminated in life self-actualization could not be achieved.

Graphic courtesy of Saul McLeod, Simply Psychology, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, 2018

In 2015, the UNGA adopted resolution 70/1, which established 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Two years later the FAO (2018) issued a warning that an estimated 821 million people worldwide remained under-nourished and food insecure. According to the FAO, SDG Two – Zero Hunger – was not on track to eradicate hunger by 2030. South Africa will be hard pressed to achieve both SDGs and the localized National Development Plan by 2030 without securing sufficient, safe and nutritious food. Walthouse (2014) stated that chronic hunger and malnutrition affect all aspects of education and life because food is the fuel the human body requires to undertake all activities. Effects include: increased vulnerability to lifestyle diseases; lowered immunity leading to chronic illness; behavioural problems and environmentally induced mental illnesses. In the South African context, it is particularly devastating, since it places an enormous burden on the public education and health sectors as well as initiatives to overcome the nearly 30% unemployment rate and the shameful recognition as the most inequitable country in the world. This again points to the need to prioritize food safety and nutrition within broader food security and socioeconomic imperatives and yet in his 2019 State of the Nation address, President Ramaphosa gave food security a passing reference. A week later, in the budget speech, it was not mentioned at all. 

What advice can we give to the South African government that access to safe and nutritious food is an overdue and yet critical right? 

The advice is equally simple. First recognize food safety as a core pillar of food security. Second acknowledge that food security is a human and political right long overdue to be a lived right. Third understand that where not achieved, it breaks the pyramid of socioeconomic success including achieving the SDGs and NDP by 2030. Fourth progress will not occur overnight but it can start in 2020 with being prioritized in the mid-term budget. Fifth bring together experts in prevention, identification, containment, governance and law to in earnest draft new legislation with accompanying regulations and a clear work study that maps the actors, their responsibilities, linkages and points to leverage incorporating the numbers and skills required with well-defined response plan and chain of command in both ongoing day to day processes and times of crisis.

In conclusion, what is the link with Human Rights Day?

Human Rights Day is commemorated on the 21st March in South Africa, this being its 25th anniversary. It is a reminder of the inhumanities people of colour suffered, specifically acknowledging the 69 killed and 180 people injured by the police in what is now known as the Sharpeville massacre, given it was a peaceful protest against racial discrimination. This year as we observe Human Rights Day, let us be an active citizenry that not only remembers the injustices of the past but focuses on the inequalities of the present. Let us invite a struggling student for a meal, drop off food supplies (whatever your budget allows) at a children’s or homeless shelter, take fresh fruit to work and give it as care packages to those who earn the least or even start planting the seeds for a vegetable garden at your work or in your community to create sustained assistance. It’s a small start, but the biggest successes can come from the few individuals willing to make a difference. On the 21st March look up at the stars that shine from the victims of Sharpeville and let them see that we keep their memory alive, not through words, but deeds that work towards fulfilling all human rights for all our people.