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Nei takk, Thabo!

Open letter to the President of South Africa

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.

Yours sincerely,

John Minto



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