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Discharging raw sewage into rivers a national security issue

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The recent news has been dominated by so many things that an important signal has been drowned out by the noise.

That small signal is the announcement by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) that typhoid has been identified in parts of South Africa, so the prudent approach is to boil the water coming from taps.

While this is an important development, it needs to be placed into context.

For starters, the NICD is a credible institution, so anything they say must be taken seriously.

This issue brings three important factors into clear focus.

Let us unpack each of these in order to gain greater perspective.

The issue of trust

The first is the issue of trust.

This is a global phenomenon, most notably associated with social media that has enabled each person to theoretically have access to the entire quantum of our cumulative knowledge as an apex species on planet earth.

In an instant, each person has the capacity to become an expert on a given topic.

We have seen this playing out in the COVID-19 space, most notably as the efficacy of the vaccination programme has been questioned.

While it is great that so much information is available to everyone instantly, it is also a problem, because unless the individual is trained to filter out the noise, they are rapidly overloaded with stuff that causes them to panic.

In South Africa this has an added dimension, driven by the findings of the Zondo Commission, which in general indicates a severe trust deficit between the government and the general population.

Seen in this light, it is highly likely that the typhoid issue will fall directly into that chasm of trust and serve to widen it even further.

This needs to be dealt with in our collective best interest, because panic serves nobody in a constructive way.

Therefore, the first part of my core message is that we must avoid the urge to become instant experts by deferring the scientific facts to the scientific professionals.

Sadly, science has been a victim of this trust deficit, so my voice might be lost in the howling gale of discontentment.

Deteriorating water quality

The second is the problem of deteriorating water quality.

In this regard, we are on absolutely solid ground, because we know – without fear of contradiction – that our water quality has been on a downward trajectory for some time.

If we are looking for a pivotal moment, we might consider the acid mine drainage decant that first hit the public attention in 2002.

Amid a flurry of activism and a media frenzy, we have the sad reality, two decades later, that absolutely nothing has been done about this matter.

Highly acidic mine water – rich in a dissolved cocktail of metals that include uranium, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury – has continued to flow into our rivers and dams in mining areas of the country.

But more importantly, we have also witnessed the systematic collapse of our wastewater infrastructure, which has accelerated over the past decade – this is best epitomised by the unsuccessful attempt of the SANDF to prevent the flow of raw sewage into the Vaal River at Emfuleni.

Two billion rand later, we are no closer today to finding a solution than we were a decade ago.

The numbers are staggering.

As a nation, we produce over five billion litres of raw sewage every day.

The latest credible calculation of that flow indicated that about 4.2 billion litres were being discharged daily into our rivers in an untreated format.

That represents a tsunami of human waste inundating our rivers and dams, without respite, for more than a decade.

This is probably our biggest single challenge as a nation.

In my professional opinion, this is a national security issue, because it impacts negatively on the lives of each citizen daily.

It is destroying the economy from within by damaging the health of the individual, without them even knowing about it.

You see, in sewage return flows, we find every substance that is ever dispensed in the retail sector.

Think of the pharmaceutical industry.

Imagine how much medication is sold each day by major pharmacies countrywide.

Every item sold ends up in the sewage stream in a partially metabolised format.

These include antibiotics, antiretrovirals, antidepressants, oestrogen used for contraception and Viagra used to keep an aging population happy.

So, we need to think of the sewage streams being discharged into our rivers and dams as thousands of tons of medication, still viable even in its partially metabolised form, to which we are exposing trillions of pathogenic microbes that are flourishing in the warm nutrient-rich waters.

Think of this as a boot camp for microbes, because lazy and weak ones are destroyed by the low concentration of antibiotics, leaving only the stronger ones to flourish.

In short, our boot camp for microbes is producing the next generation of multidrug-resistant pathogens.

It is happening right before our eyes. 

Simply think about this logically and draw your own conclusion if you choose to mistrust science for reasons of your own. 

Does it make sense to allow the discharge of more than four billion litres of sewage daily into our rivers and dams, without anticipating some form of unintended consequence? 

Ability to cope as a nation

The third is the issue of our ability to cope as a nation.

Here is where it gets really interesting, because at the very time when we are facing multiple risks to our economic well-being – COVID-19, unemployment, capital flight, energy crisis and corruption, to name but a few – we also need to be at our peak performance when it comes to finding solutions.

We can say, with a high level of confidence, that our capacity to reach consensus on the way to solve the complex problems we are facing is probably at an historic low (and deteriorating).

In fact, we can say that there is an inverse relationship between our need to find consensus on a viable way ahead and our capacity to generate the very consensus on which our survival as a species depends.

This sounds a little dramatic, but I am using it to illustrate the point that, globally, our capacity to unite in the face of a single common threat – climate change – is being eroded by many forces.

These include the deficit of trust in the government (point one noted above), the growing mistrust of science (exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the manifest as social pushback from the anti-vaxxers and the climate change denialists) and the increased sense of helplessness that each person is confronted with.

All of these are manifested in the typhoid issue.

While typhoid is clearly a bad thing, we need to place it in context.

Just as the COVID-19 issue has shown us, the fatalities are relatively few, and while tragic to the individual families impacted, seen through the lens of logic and reason, this is not a show-stopper.

What it does is highlight the issue of our failing sewage infrastructure.

We can no longer simply accept that incompetent politicians can muddle their way through a growing crisis.

We have to hold them accountable.

We must convert the rising sense of rage into the high-octane rocket fuel of change.

We need to say enough is enough.

Now is the time that we demand technically competent people be appointed into specialist jobs, and then held fully accountable.

We need to depoliticise the deployment of cadres, for that policy has brought us the failing infrastructure we see in Eskom, PRASA, municipal wastewater systems and many other failed SOEs.

In the face of the typhoid outbreak, we need to renew our trust in science, but also wake up and smell the coffee by realising that we cannot simply discharge billions of litres of acidic mine water and raw sewage into our rivers and dams, without encountering unintended consequences.

Those consequences might just be deadly.

  • Professor Anthony Turton is an affiliated professor in the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State. He specialises in strategic planning, transboundary water resource management, policy and institutional issues, conflict resolution, political risk assessment for large infrastructural projects and research programme design. He is also the director of Nanodyn Systems Pty Ltd.

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Opinion

An attack on student activism is an attack on our democracy

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Universities remain one of the most unequal and untransformed spaces in South Africa.

One may argue that the country itself is one of the world’s youngest democracies and faces many of the challenges that new democratic states face.

After all, the apartheid regime was “demolished” just over five quinquennials ago.

However, one may also argue that after 27 years the country should not be facing the same challenges it was facing at the dawn of democracy.

One of the most urgent issues that South Africa is facing is the failure to invest in active youth empowerment in order to enable young people to be active citizens who may tackle our country’s wide array of issues.

This is characterised by the attack of active citizenship by student activists at South African universities.

At most institutions throughout the country, university management has criminalised activism so as to easily get away with the failed project of transformation and social injustice.

The last seven years and a half have been defined by mass protests of the ongoing #FeesMustFall movement.

As we may all know, the #FeesMustFall movement is a student-led protest movement which began in 2015.

This saw a massive eruption of protests at universities across the country in a movement that redefined politics in post-apartheid South Africa and presented the evidence of a “born-free” generation telling their own story and leading discourse as well as action on transforming South Africa through the quest of free and accessible education.

After seven years, the concerns of the first #FeesMustFall generation of students are still very visible in society.

Although relative accessibility has increased due to a slight boost in public and private sector funding, many issues such as accessible, safe and secure student accommodation, food insecurity on campuses, decolonised university curricula and first-generation entry into universities still remain present.

But why has the #FeesMustFall movement lost momentum over the years?

Universities in South Africa as well as the government successfully quashed the movement by harassing and victimising student leaders and activists.

A 2019 investigation report by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate revealed that over 33 million South African rand was spent spying on #FeesMustFall activists during the 2016-17 academic calendars.

Many student activists also attested to their phones being tapped and their places of residence and those of their loved ones being put under surveillance during the period.

In order to win the fight against the #FeesMustFall movement, universities such as the University of the Free State (UFS) adopted strategies to intimidate and victimise student leaders.

In this way, they were actively infringing upon the right to protest which is enshrined in Section 17 of the Constitution, which states: “Everyone has the right, peacefully and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions.”

This is to be done peacefully and without weapons.

On March 30, 2022, UFS vice chancellor Professor Francis Petersen wrote an article titled ‘When a protest is not a protest but a crime’.

In the article, Petersen narrates the challenges faced by South African universities while strongly condemning student protests on the UFS and University of Kwazulu-Natal campuses.

On the surface level, it may seem as if this article is a genuine expression of concern about issues faced by universities throughout the country.

Unfortunately, for many student activists and student leaders, the article in subject is a manifestation of the continued attack on student activism and the victimisation of student activists at South African universities.

This article serves to outline the strategic and organised syndicate by the “old guard” collective, which seeks to crush student activism on all fronts on its campuses in order to replace it with prefect-like anointed leadership in student representation.

This collective includes government and university officials in different capacities.

They have used and are using different tools and tactics to quell activism on campuses.

As part of the fourth generation of #FeesMustFall activists, I have seen first-hand the unfair university managements’ response during peaceful demonstrations and protests at the UFS campus.

Private security companies are hired and they brutalise students engaging in peaceful protests.

It is needless to say that most universities face the same issues every year.

While we may attest that some of the issues leading to protests are sector challenges that have little to do with registration, most of the issues are operational challenges that are created by universities themselves in light of incompetence.

Issues such as on-campus and off-campus accommodation for students have been prominent during registration periods.

The UFS itself has only 5 790 beds on the Bloemfontein campus while it has over 32 000 students enrolled.

Very little has been done to fix this matter.

Accreditation of off-campus student accommodation has also been failing at the UFS for over three years.

Other issues such as verification of funding of students between the financial aid office and the finance office are always prominent every year and affect predominantly disadvantaged students.

These operational issues could easily be solved through consultative dialogue with activists and student leaders to find sustainable and efficient models.

But, no!

Universities continue to criminalise activism and harass student leaders.

The UFS has guidelines to operationalise the right to protest.

According to the said guidelines, “the UFS is committed to not only protecting or tolerating, but also enabling and indeed fostering protest.”

Yet, in 2021, the UFS took out a court interdict to ensure that student activists, including those affiliated to the South African Students Congress (SASCO), EFF Student Command and even the Student Representative Council (SRC) could not carry out their fundamental purpose of representing students views and protecting their interests.

Twenty-four students were arrested at a protest on campus and spent time in prison.

Although the university withdrew the charges in February 2022, the intention was not to serve justice against criminals, but to intimidate and victimise students and their leaders into silence.

On February 23, 13 student activists including myself were arrested at a peaceful demonstration regarding late allocation of students’ allowances.

We spent multiple days in holding.

Contrary to what Petersen claims, the situation on South African university campuses is not a situation of criminality.

It is a result of the old-guard tactics that have made it difficult for organised activism to continue, leaving students and their leaders with no option except adopting guerrilla activism for their voices to be heard.

Such tactics should be seen as nothing more than institutionalised vigilantism that seeks to undermine the highest law in the land through legal means.

Although Section 35 of the Higher Education Act, No. 101 of 1997, as amended, compels all institutions of public higher education in South Africa to have SRCs as part of their governing structures, they do not compel universities to have capacitated and conscious representatives of students.

For this reason, universities in South Africa are attacking and quelling all forms of organised activism in order for the SRC to be merely a box to tick on their campuses.

In this way, they can do as they please with the lives and future of students, with no capacitated student activists to keep them accountable or ensure sustainable transformation.

These efforts by universities are part of their fight against the #FeesMustFall movement, which continues to this day in many forms and shapes.

Stances such as those of Petersen are a danger to society because they threaten the fundamental principles upon which our democracy is built.

Such views threaten free speech, the right to education, expression and organised protest.

There is no question that student movements have played an important role in South Africa’s path to and development as a democracy throughout the years.

Organisations such as NUSAS, SASO and SASCO ensured that South Africa’s gross apartheid policies were kept on the agenda in international advocacy spaces.

In addition to this, the #FeesMustFall movement ensured that relative access to higher education is not only for the rich and privileged in South Africa.

In conclusion, institutions of higher learning that criminalise activism directly render freedom and democracy immaterial.

If solutions to the country’s sector problems in higher education are to be found, it will be through collaborative and sustainable engagements with stakeholders in the sector alongside student activists and leaders.

Any other means that claim to be putting forward solutions by criminalising the expression of those issues are mere criminality.

  • Siphilangenkosi Dlamini is an undergraduate student in political governance and transformation at the University of the Free State. A student activist and researcher, he is also the author of the book ‘Magic and Other Authentic Experiences’.

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Opinion

Time to protest against protests

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It is becoming increasingly difficult for institutions of higher learning in South Africa to maintain the delicate balancing act of finding sustainable funding solutions amid mounting pressures caused by rapidly altering learning and teaching environments, dwindling government subsidies and the massification of higher education.

And uncontrolled, violent student protests might just be the final blow that sends many tertiary institutions over the precipice.

There is no doubt that student protests have over the years played a vital part in South Africa’s journey towards and maturation as a democracy.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, student organisations such as NUSAS, SASO and later SASCO kept South Africa’s human rights violations on the international agenda through unrelenting campaigns and protests.

And more recently, the #FeesMustFall movement in 2015 and 2016 has raised important awareness around ensuring access to education for students from the lowest-earning households.

The recent spate of violent protests on some university campuses, however, seems to transcend the boundaries of what can rightfully be termed as “protest action”.

When students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the Durban University of Technology caused severe physical damage and disrupted classes at the beginning of the year, UKZN vice-chancellor, Professor Nana Poku, condemned their actions in no uncertain terms as “organised crime”.

And he is right.

This kind of behaviour is nothing but opportunistic criminality in the guise of legitimate protest.

A few weeks after the violence erupted on campuses in KwaZulu-Natal, students on the University of the Free State (UFS) Qwaqwa campus went on a similar rampage, throwing stones at protection officers, vandalising buildings and raiding the university dining hall.

There are distinct differences between these acts and the majority of past student protests.

In most cases, current issues represent a much narrower interest than in the past, affecting only a certain section of the student population, and often revolving around the administrative processes concerning funding.

At UKZN, the main issue seems to have been students demanding to register even though they had historical debt.

At the UFS Qwaqwa campus, it was about a decision by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to pay accommodation allowances for students residing off campus directly to landlords and not to students themselves.

Apart from affecting a relatively small number of students, the “fight” was not per se with university management.

Universities South Africa (USAf) pointed out that many of the issues raised by students this year were actually sector challenges and fell outside the control of tertiary institutions.

Regardless of this, institutions regularly bend over backwards in an attempt to find workable interim solutions and making financial concessions to accommodate affected students.

Professor Poku relates how at UKZN the concessions made towards students with historical debts amounted to more than R1 billion.

At the UFS, apart from similar concessions, we also offered students allowances for food and books amounting to more than R71 million this year, while they are waiting for their NSFAS subsidies to be released – a major impact on cashflow management.

Despite these gestures of goodwill, a small group of aggrieved students still went ahead with violent acts, causing millions of rands of damage on campus and creating an atmosphere of intimidation and fear.

University campuses today are vastly different spaces from what they used to be in the 1970s and 1980s, as a result of drastic and far-reaching changes in the educational landscape over the past few decades.

Access to higher education has opened up and is no longer restricted to high-income households.

The total number of students enrolled at higher education institutions increased by almost 70 percent between 2002 and 2020, growing to just more than one million in number.

Coupled with that, tertiary institutions have gone through radical transformation processes, ensuring that they not only embrace diversity, but respect human rights and social justice through fair process and policy.

At the UFS, for example, we have had well-considered, comprehensive transformation over several years in all spheres of operation, enabling us to become an institution where diverse people feel a sense of common purpose and where the symbols and spaces, systems and daily practices all reflect commitment to openness and engagement.

We also have various initiatives to ensure that students are successful in their studies, ranging from tutorial programmes to language, writing and psychological support.

Policies and structures are continuously being implemented and reviewed to embrace social justice in all its forms, with deliberate dialogue opportunities and avenues created for raising concerns and addressing them.

At the UFS, student success is a social justice imperative.

Great care is also taken to involve our student leadership in governance on all levels, with a high level of student participation in all UFS governing structures.

Despite all the different recourses available to them, and a genuine culture of participation and caring cultivated on our campuses, disgruntled splinter groups in the student body still routinely reach for the most destructive weapon in their arsenal of options, namely violent protests.

These protest actions also often seem to jump the gun, as they happen in tandem with and despite fruitful, progressive negotiations with elected student leaders.

Not only is this incredibly frustrating – it disrespects the rights and wishes of the overwhelming majority of students, and completely challenges the notion of “negotiation and engagement in good faith”.

There are no winners in the wake of ill-considered, violent acts of vandalism.

Offending students are no closer to a solution – in fact, they may find themselves suspended and in trouble with the law to boot.

By disrupting classes and preventing access to campuses, they are effectively robbing their fellow students of the opportunity to work towards obtaining a qualification.

Affected institutions are impacted in their ability to provide quality education to students and in fulfilling their wider society-focused mandate.

On top of that, potential donors and investors in the South African higher education sector are discouraged.

The sustainability and very survival of higher education institutions are ultimately at stake, as especially small and medium-sized universities simply cannot continue to bear the financial and operational burden that each violent protest brings.

It has become necessary to take a tough stance against offenders who perpetrate senseless acts of violence and place students and staff members in danger on our campuses.

At the UFS, we have always been very accommodating towards protesting students, not only as a constitutional right, but our approach in dealing with student misconduct has a strong element of restorative justice.

But we have decided to take a hard-line approach against the offenders in these latest acts of violence and destruction – opposing bail and instituting emergency disciplinary processes against them, resulting in immediate suspensions and sanctions which could lead to expulsion.

We need to send a clear message that blatant acts of criminality will simply not be tolerated on university campuses.

We also appeal to political parties under whose banners many of these destructive activities are undertaken to publicly condemn these acts and to call their members to order.

Throughout the course of history, we have come to associate university campuses with arenas where free speech is encouraged, and social ills are pointed out.

This role should be cherished, continued and encouraged – “reclaiming” back the university campuses as spaces for discourse.

But equally important is the responsibility to use your right to freedom of expression in such a way that you do not violate the rights of other individuals or jeopardise the continued operation of the very institution you all form part of – and, by implication, negatively affecting the wider interests of the society it serves.

The role of universities is, after all, not only to provide good workers and innovative thinkers for the job market.

We need to cultivate good citizens, who can make a meaningful difference to society.

Teaching and encouraging mutual respect should be a vital part of any university curriculum.

By letting criminality go unpunished and not speaking out to these acts, we are contributing towards a culture of entitlement, where people readily resort to criminal acts when they do not get what they believe they are entitled to.

This cuts directly across what institutions for higher learning aim to achieve and bodes for a dangerous future.

  • Professor Francis Petersen is the rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State

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Opinion

Operation Dudula confirms we are a country in real trouble

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Unbidden, the spectre of a failed state haunts the contemporary imagination of South Africa.

State responsibility and accountability have been piecemeal, with the citizenry of South Africa is left to fend for itself, as organs of state have grounded to a halt due to historical missteps in securing our physical and knowledge infrastructures, and contemporary endemic mismanagement of vital resources.

Many have warned us of the spiralling road to purgatory – Justice Malala, the Arch, Kader Asmal, Thabo Mbeki, Athol Williams.

And many social phenomena have been harbingers of a South Africa in violent transition – the Marikana massacre; roiling xenophobic attacks that have maimed particularly African transnationals; rising unemployment, particularly among the youth; and the militarisation of the state in “defence of order and the rule of law” during COVID-19.

In this firepit of uncertainty exacerbated by a lengthy state of emergency in response to a global pandemic, South Africa’s destitute have been embattled psychologically, physically, emotionally and financially.

Survival – life – is not guaranteed.

A multivalent and multipronged response has been constrained, as various government departments lack the political will, knowledge and sense of deep responsibility and accountability towards the people.

The gravity and sheer overwhelm that comes with recognising this thin knife-edge we are teetering on has led to South Africa cycling between mass inertia and rabble-rousing rebellions, literally and otherwise, that agitate for a reorganisation of the social order.

How do we uphold the value of life?

Operation Dudula, like many other social movements in the country, foregrounds the vast, seemingly insurmountable obstacles we face in living lives of and with dignity in South Africa.

They respond to the question: “How do we uphold the value of life, no matter race, creed, nationality or religion, when we as South Africans are annihilated on the throne of a hetero-patriarchal, capitalist democratic state that has lost favour among those who matter – the people?”

Listening closely to the rhetoric from the face of Operation Dudula, Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini, one hears the lion roaring and, like so many before him, he uses hyper-masculine and performative tropes of protector, provider, hustler and gangster as swirling metaphors tempered by “the rule of law” to assert that South Africa is for South Africans.

Using unsubstantiated claims that pit illegal foreigners against local South Africans, the messiness and complex contextual nature of criminal activity, inclusive of intent, range of crimes and the identity of perpetrators, are reduced to legality or illegality of citizenship.

Yet statistics do not support the suggestion that crime is being driven by illegal foreigners or undocumented migrants – the leading majority of our male prison population is South African.

While the existence of Operation Dudula is becoming a sustained and vocal threat to the veneer of “business as usual” in the country and to the lives of non-nationals, there are seeds of potential cast among the operation’s challenges.

However, this potential will be wasted and destroyed if we do not recognise and collectively respond to the:

* inter-related and inter-dependent nature of South Africa’s contemporary state of affairs;

* power inherent in an active citizenry that understands that I am my brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, irrespective of socially constructed, performed and maintained markers of difference; and

* collective psychological and emotional trauma that undergirds our interactions with each other, and “the other”.

We are a country in trouble

Our xenophobic responses to perceived and real threats in South Africa over the past two decades confirm that stereotyping and scapegoating are part of rudimentary attempts to eradicate these threats to self, and to effectively disarm them.

However, history also shows that annihilation of the other does not secure one’s self.

Instead, the sublimation and vanquishing of the other has detrimental effects on a thinking-feeling human being whose righteous logic of “being right” cannot withstand the internal reckoning that will come from annihilating another.

As Hemphill states, “each death and each riot activate another memory of another life lost without justice or reason; this is how trauma unhealed haunts and accumulates, re-emerging and reanimating the body. It does not disappear.”

We are a country in trouble. We are a world troubled.

And if we are to survive this as a collective, not as divided parts of the collective, we will have to critically question and consciously resist years of indoctrination and socialisation that assert that “might is right” – that fighting and going to war (on local and on foreign soil) is a righteous endeavour if one does so to protect the sovereignty of land, borders, bodies and ideologies.

The revolution will not be televised, for it is an internal one.

We have no map to chart the way forward as old-world orders dissolve; as the earth implodes under the heaviness of human waste and damage; and as humans continue to live desperate lives separated from the life-giving forces of nature and the divine feminine.

Moving forward, those resident in South Africa will have to fashion new social compacts that uphold the sovereignty of individuals and their right to dignified life, supported by collective and individual interventions that supersede the state.

Ordinary citizens will have to free themselves from mental shackles as they actively re-root and reroute themselves in ancient philosophies and ways of being that extend beyond one originary myth.

We will have to trust and grow the potential that exists within an uncertain world and trust the humanness within self and others to guide us to each other; to draw closer when every fibre of our being rages against that shattering of physical and ideological distance.

We are not without ordinary examples of this work.

My research and those of my students among African transnational migrants demonstrate alternative ways of interacting that support rather than degrade the financial, emotional and spiritual well-being of citizen and non-citizen.

Born out of need, acts of connection and micro-resistance reorder, question and negate the jarring and dissonant narratives and realities of difference that were part of South Africa’s foundations.

Through love, kindness and mutual support and guidance, South Africans and other nationals reframe the reality of living in South Africa, exposing an ethic of care and commitment to a collective well-being that is not based on socially constructed forms of inclusion and exclusion, or politically orchestrated forms of responsibility.

The existence of Operation Dudula and the Gift of the Givers, for example, confirms that we have work to do across generations in this country.

Our work includes the painstaking process of healing our individual and collective psyches and the re-envisioning of a future that is supportive of all life.

We need to serve life and make our country and “the world safe for human differences” (Benedict).

The time to evolve, consciously, is upon us.

  • Professor Joy Owen is the head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of the Free State.

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