My story begins with Sthoko, a young South African woman who gave my feet a wonderful pedicure after walking in the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa last week. Sthoko is one of the new generation South Africans, proud of her heritage and looking forward to a happy and successful economic future. Sthoko is educated and has a good job in a resort spa. She hopes to find a good and decent man to marry and start a family. But for now, she lives in a remote region of South Africa where three provinces meet at the escarpment. Mobile phones are plentiful in South Africa, but outside of the metropolitan areas, coverage is sparse and internet access is patchy to say the least. Satellite TV provides most of the news, but it’s expensive. Sthoko is lucky – she can read so will be able to find out about current affairs for herself. She wonders, for example, why the Zimbabwean people are not rising up en masse against Robert Mugabe. But there are many others who are not so fortunate, who are unable to read or write.
Which is why education is so important for South Africa’s next generation. In the eight years since we were last there, infrastructure has deteriorated. Roads in particular are most badly affected. If children are unable to get to school, or are unable to communicate with a teacher via the internet, using Skype for example, how on earth can they be educated? We spent some time with Megan Bedingham at The Cavern Resort. Megan and her family have set-up and built a school, The Royal Drakensberg Primary School, for local children. This local school means that the parents of little children no longer have to find the money to travel an hour by taxi to school. No money means no school for many children. The South African government provides no financial support for the school, so it must find funding for teachers and supplies from other sources. Parents are, however, expected to pay R400.00 (about £30.00) a month for each child at the school, and that is a huge sum of money for most of these parents whose main employment is at The Cavern Resort or the neighbouring hotels. The remainder of the school fee is generated by tireless fundraising.
The problem for the education of girls is even more desperate. In this area of South Africa, Zulu tribal traditions are very strong, which means that boys are born with more advantages than girls. Girls are still growing up and working in domestic service. Of course, this will always happen, but it is said that the education of children is only as good as that of their mother. So, unless we can educate the mothers of tomorrow, children in South Africa will never rise above the basic level. I believe very strongly that there needs to be more focus and commitment on educating girls, empowering them through education, to healthier, happier lives as confident women in South Africa’s future.
The newly appointed health minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi has declared his aim of an HIV-free generation. The recent public awareness ads are hard hitting and make it clear that responsible sexual practice will be a major contributor to halting the spread of the infection. South Africa cannot afford the widespread use of anti-retroviral drugs forever.
While in South Africa, I listened to a debate on broad-based black economic empowerment, which the local people refer to as BBEE. Eighteen years after Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress came to power, this is still the main concern amongst young black South Africans. May is Africa month, a celebration of all things African. But everyone is wondering if this generation will enjoy true economic freedom and independence, that which previous generations have fought for.
Oprah Winfrey has started a girls’ school in Johannesburg to address just this issue. I have previously written about Thandulwazi, a maths and science academy in Johannesburg. And now, I’m asking you to consider the Northern Drakensberg Khanyisela project. Khanyisela means to enlighten. Thandulwazi is the love of knowledge. Two more projects inspiring brighter futures for South Africa and its children.
As a metaphor, the image of the whole country going down the river for the Jubilee is so appropriate, I’m surprised more wiseacre commentators haven’t picked up on it. It is galling enough that a country in such dire straits — with high unemployment, a double-dip recession in progress, a failing health service, and its myriad other problems — can afford to splash out on celebrating the one person in the nation who never need worry about the spectre of poverty or work (the Queen is, after all, permanently underemployed) not dying. But that the manner of this spectacle should be her sitting idly while a pageant of her subjects float past on what might as well be a river of tears, in barges crafted from their dashed hopes and dreams, is nothing short of cheek.She stood watching this flotilla of filthy followers for hours, we are told, as if that was enough to justify her privileged position. The time, money and effort of thousands of people was evident, while all she had to do was put on her best hat and watch them pass in their little boats with the rain beating down upon them, giving them the appearance of drowned rats. It must have looked like something out of a postmodern Wind in the Willows.
I wonder, as she stood there, undoubtedly bored, whether she was aware of what some of her subjects had to endure to enable this event. The Guardian reported that a number of long term jobseekers were forced to work as stewards without pay during the event. That, in itself, doesn’t count as out of the ordinary in this Tory Britain, but the details revealed a sequence of uncaring treatment that was described as akin to slavery. They were bussed in from Bristol in the early hours of the morning and abandoned, told to camp under a bridge like common trolls, made to change into their uniforms in public and had no access to toilets for the whole day. I don’t expect the unemployed to be treated like royalty, but I’d demand at least they be treated like human beings.
I tried my best to avoid coverage of the Jubilee, but the signs and signifiers were everywhere. I reached a point where I swore that, if I saw another Union Jack, I would wrap myself in it and immolate myself in Trafalgar Square. Displays of excessive jingoism only seem to manifest during royal events, football tournaments and wars; the rest of the time, most citizens couldn’t give two patriotic shits about the country. But stores have done a roaring business in red, white and blue tat – from bunting and tableware to clothing and cushion covers – so every home can look like the venue for a BNP rally. The only theme that I’ve found more annoying is constantly being confronted with the litany that I should ‘Keep Calm and Carry On,’ on posters, mugs and T-shirts. In the current political and economic crisis, that’s the equivalent of saying ‘What iceberg?’ when the ship is already sinking. I, for one, will be donning my T-shirt featuring the slogan ‘Time To Panic and Set Fire to Things’ any day now.
I’ve nothing personal against the Queen. As run of the mill old ladies go, I suppose I find her inoffensive enough. If I were in a post office queue, she’s the kind of person I’d rather was behind me than in front of me, as you know she’s going to try to engage the person serving in conversation about her various aches and pains, the doings of her million grandchildren, and what her husband said to the Chinese ambassador this time. I’m also not going to let this article descend into an over-reaching republican diatribe, in spite of that being the general thrust of my opinions. My issue here is with the misplaced and mystifying adoration of her social position.
In 2002 a BBC poll revealed the country’s preferred list of 100 Greatest Britons, which placed Elizabeth II at number 24. Two monarchs beat her: Queen Victoria and her namesake, Elizabeth I, the only crowned head to reach the top ten. But, tellingly of the contrary nature of all of us, Oliver Cromwell, who chopped off a King’s head and briefly turned the country into a republic, beat all monarchs bar one. Three Prime Ministers and a man who tried to blow up parliament with a King in it also placed nearly as highly, or higher than, our present Queen. The rest of the top of the list was completed by notable scientists, authors, explorers, mathematicians, military leaders and musicians – in other words, people who actually contributed to the betterment of the nation and its people, not just someone who got to where they are merely by being born. So do we really love our monarchy as much as all the pomp and trumpeting would have us believe?
Tradition was you’d rid yourself of a troublesome head of state by divorcing their head from their body. Now, any policy passed by parliament must be signed into law by the monarch, meaning they would have to sign the law removing themselves from the constitution, and finding any monarch progressive enough to throw themselves from the royal gravy train is as likely as finding a stone that bleeds blue blood. The truth of the matter is that we still have a monarch because this system is set up in such a way that no government would make so radical and potentially unpopular a proposition as to abolish the monarchy, and no monarch would put themselves out of a job. It’s a classic elephant in the room dilemma. Everyone knows the role of the monarch is entirely ceremonial and symbolic, but no one is prepared to take the steps to cut away the dead flesh. It’s tradition, but that’s just another way of saying we do something a certain way because that’s the way we’ve always done it. I’m not sure that our adoration, bordering on religious idolatry, doesn’t come about largely because it’s expected of one.
I also wonder what the rest of the world thinks when they see the footage on their evening news. Undoubtedly the royals are good for tourism, they’re a spectator sport. But so are the Hunger Games, and if the country needs a distraction in these troubled times I would rather the O2 Arena was rechristened the O2 Thunderdome and the privileged few would be forced to duel until only one was left standing, and in that way at least they would have earned my respect, and any right to parade.