By Archbishop Njongo Ndungane
The question: ‘What is poverty?’ would get varied responses according to the gender, race, age, and geographic location of respondents. Woven into the responses a central feature would be that poverty is not only about the lack of financial resources, but more centrally about an absence of opportunities and choices which allow people to build decent lives for themselves and their families. This emerged clearly 10 years ago when I was one of the commissioners at the Speak out on Poverty public hearings.
These hearings were convened by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE) and the South African NGO Coalition (SANGOCO) between 31 March and 19 June 1998 and held in each of our nine provinces. Over 10 000 people participated and nearly 600 people presented oral evidence over the 35 days of the hearings.
What emerged was the fact that poverty is about an ongoing struggle with starvation, lack of access to shelter, services, income and jobs. In that context, poverty can be described as the violation of the rights to basic resources.
The testimonies also provided sufficient evidence of the innovation and vision of people who survive against all odds. It was clear, however, that resourcefulness is not enough. The main message that emerged from the poor is that they need to be empowered and capacitated in a way that enables them to fend for themselves and reduce reliance on handouts. To achieve this we must analyse how the poor are ‘included’ in the economy and whether the market is in fact sufficiently open for the poor.
Ten years on and evidence suggests that the amount of people living in poverty has increased. This has prompted the various concerned partner organizations to initiate a follow up to the 1998 poverty hearings - the 10th Anniversary Poverty Hearings.
This initiative is intended to serve as much needed feedback on the 1998 hearings. We feel that it is important for us to assess from the poor themselves the actions that have been taken to address their plight, actions that they have taken to improve their lives and their awareness of economic and social rights as enshrined in the Constitution. The hearings will therefore provide a rich opportunity to hear people speak for themselves and present solutions to the challenges they face. The idea is to use people’s own voices to carry the issues to the corridors of power. At the end of the day we wish to see a prioritisation of poor people’s issues and a move from talk to action as far as policy formulation and implementation are concerned.
This initiative will also serve as a pilot for similar interventions around the continent. We hope that other organisations and entities will take on the issue of poverty hearings as a tool for advocacy and will use them in various countries to advocate for prioritisation of issues that affect the poor.
For more information on the 10th Anniversary Poverty Hearings initiatives, please contact Bridget Katundu of African Monitor, firstname.lastname@example.org. For input by Archbishop Ndungane, please contact Buhle Makamanzi, email@example.com.
Archbishop Njongo Ndungane is the President and Founder of African Monitor (www.africanmonitor.org). African Monitor is one of the organisations that are in the process of initiating the 10th Anniversary Poverty Hearings.