Who will stand up for the vulnerable in South Africa?

In my Professional Opinion

By: Dr. Ivor Blumenthal

As a Broadcaster, I have the unique privilege of interviewing remarkable people. Selfless and more concerned about the vulnerable in society, these people always have suffered personally in one way or another and in the process of triumphing over adversity they develop a burning passion to help others.

Two recent interview’s I have been privileged to conduct about Vulnerable Groups, stand out for me.

The first was about ADDICTION. and related to an institution in Johannesburg called Phoenix House. With over 8 million people in this country recognised as having one form of addiction or another, Phoenix House has for decades been one of the rare places to which parents and friends could turn to for help when no Public Institution could help or cared.

You have to have your head so deeply buried you-know-where, not to be aware that services for the treatment of Addiction available from our Government have collapsed in South Africa. Not only do neither our Department of Health nor Social Services not have competent, interested or committed people heading up those Departments any longer, our Government has long ago lost any interest in catering to vulnerable groups which need help and assistance. That is to say except during elections when they role out the faux sympathy and empty promises in the hope of stealing votes with those false undertakings. In speaking with these families, it is apparent to me that the parents and families of Addicts and other Vulnerable groups in our society are so sick and tired of being lied to and have become so mistrusting of politicians and even some Private Sector Business people, that their jaded souls have simply shut down to any promises at all. Let-alone the false ones.

My interview with Laura Brady, General manager of Phoenix House can be found at https://soundcloud.com/conbussa/social-welfare-in-sa-incompetent-criminals-led-by-a-minister-who-deserves-imprisonment.

Phoenix House used to be under SANCA the SA National Council for Addiction, which no longer received sufficient Public Funding from Government to keep Phoenix House going. Lottery money quickly disappeared and the institution was left high-and-dry, having to close down.

Now Phoenix House has been re-opened as a Private Venture, sponsored by an ex-addict who was helped into recovery eight years ago at the institution. Phoenix House has 20 beds in its in-patient center. While it used to have an outpatients unit, it had to close that down because of funding.

In reality, 15% of every South Africans are ADDICTS. South Africa has 8 Million addicts.  Addiction affects everyone in society. It doesn’t discriminate. The SA Government itself claims formally that Drug Addiction is twice the world’s norm. SAPS acknowledges it is out of control. The government, therefore, knows how bad the problem is. Yet…..?

Because Phoenix House is not a registered non-profit organisation it is NOT ALLOWED to fundraise. Every patient, therefore, has to be fully funded. Some Medical Aids do cover the shortest of their programmes costing R28 000. Significant self-funding has to kick in for longer programmes.

The second interview I have conducted recently on Vulnerable Groups was on the issue of Disability in South Africa. It was with Martin Brown, previously a successful and very active sports personality, who in an instant became so profoundly disabled that he has now to use a stick in his mouth to be functional. That interview can be found at https://soundcloud.com/conbussa/has-disabled-life-in-sa-changed-in-any-way-since-madiba-took-over

What struck me about my interview on Martin’s remarkably positive and fulfilled life, was how hard a person who is disabled has to work to make a living. It’s not bad enough that a person in this position has to deal daily with the challenges placed before them regarding their actual disability and surviving them both physically and mentally. When it comes to work, career and career progression there is no question that despite many legislative and regulatory opportunities having been created for the Disabled at work, chiefly by the Treasury and in the form not only of tax concessions but actual additional deductions permissible for employing people with disabilities, there is no active facilitation of this process from anywhere. Certainly, the Department’s of Social Services and of Labour are silent when it comes to creating opportunities which are common in Europe and even the USA but which are non-existent in SA to facilitate the introduction of people with disabilities into the workplace, effectively.  

Whereas the Employment Equity Act and the very presence of an Employment Equity Forum’s in the workplace were initially intended to promote, track and report on the successes of introducing people with Disabilities into the workforce, there has been no follow-through whatsoever and absolutely no enforcement of any kind to ensure that this is accomplished. DOL has been noticeable by its absence in this regard.

Additionally, while we may have had a very promising “Ministry for the Vulnerable” introduced under President Zuma’s first term, the inability and lack of capacity to contribute, by those placed in charge, saw this Ministry shut down by the start of his second term.

The reality is however that we cannot rely on any Government, but especially not our own, to have the interests of the disabled at heart. It never will. It is really up to owners of small, medium and large businesses to realise that unless they personally drive the introduction of people with disabilities into their own workforces, then this category of civil society will forever be marginalized and remain on the sidelines. It is about personal passion not just to do the right thing but to do something which is effective in boosting productivity and consistency amongst the workforce.

During my interview with Martin, I was reminded that it is all about the quality of leadership. That, within a community such as that of Disability, a Leader has to have super-competencies tenacity, passion, and commitment. Often because they themselves are people living with disabilities, to begin with, who when elected have additional challenges and responsibilities besides their own personal ones, to then have to deal with.

I was left wondering however whether to truly represent the Disabled effectively, consistently and in all quarters where representation is required, one has to oneself be disabled? I personally do not believe that is necessary. Instead, I have seen around the world that the Disabled Communities of North America, the UK, Germany, etc. are best led when there is an integration of effective leadership from everywhere, not just from within the Disabled Community in a particular country.

Is that true, reverse integration?