Meet Pinky: Africa's War on Self-Reliance

Richard Tren | 05 Jul 2005
TCS Daily

JOHANNESBURG -- Friday afternoons are a busy time at the small shopping centre in the up market Johannesburg suburb of Oaklands. The green grocer and nearby butcher do a swift trade so that Johannesburg's housewives can put on lavish dinners. The open air restaurant prepares endless cups of cappuccino and uncorks bottles of white wine for those fortunate enough to take the afternoon off. In the street, the mini-bus taxis weave in and out of the traffic as they ferry people back to the sprawling townships. And on the wide tree lined pavement, Pinky, a large woman with a friendly, almost circular, face prepares stews and rice that she sells to passers by as well as to her regular customers.

This particular Friday ended badly for Pinky, but the unfolding events left the coffee drinkers untouched and would probably be of little interest to the profane Bob Geldof as he prepared for his Live 8 concert in London. Just before 3pm on Friday, the first day in July, Pinky lost her pots, pans, cooker and all her produce. Without warning the Johannesburg Metro Police arrived and citing some or other city by-law confiscated her property and handed her a 750 Rand fine (US $115). When I spoke to Pinky, she was close to tears. This was the second time in two weeks that the Police had swooped. But this time she had borrowed money to get pots and a cooker. She now has no way of earning the money to pay off her loan and certainly can't raise the money to pay the fine so that she can get her goods back.

This small episode, which unfortunately is repeated day in and day out around Johannesburg, is a neat example of how African governments trample on their own people and how giving more aid to the continent will simply reward incompetence, brutality and failure.

At the upcoming G8 meeting in Scotland, Africa will be high on the agenda as the world's successful countries deliberate what to do for the world's least successful. It is understandable that the citizens of rich countries want to help Africans. But putting on concerts and demonstrating in Edinburgh is hardly going to help Pinky out, and in fact may do her more harm.

President Mbeki of South Africa will be attending the G8 summit to present his positive spin on all the good things going on in Africa. South Africa probably has the best functioning democracy in Africa and an advanced economy. Yet even in this country, the government routinely stamps down on the poor and stops them from advancing.

"What am I supposed to do now? Do they want me to go out and commit a crime so that I can feed my children?" a bewildered Pinky asked me.

African countries, including South Africa, have refused to give even the vaguest criticism of the almost unimaginably abusive Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, maintaining that the crimes committed by that government are an internal matter. It is difficult to understand why no African leader will speak out and condemn such a clear case of evil, but in remaining silent they give their tacit approval and encouragement of the destruction of peoples' lives and livelihoods.

Perhaps African leaders are just so removed from the lives of ordinary Africans that they cannot fathom any individual's need to provide for him or herself, to be self reliant and to take pride in what he or she produces.

When I witnessed the police grabbing Pinky's property, I realized that it is only a short step from this to grabbing Pinky's home and demolishing it. It is only a short step from that to arresting Pinky or even murdering her. For if a government has no respect for a person's property or for her talents and aspirations, why should they respect human life at all?

So when the G8 countries, encouraged by Geldof and his platitudinous popstar friends, give money to Africa, they are rewarding the very people that cause poverty, destruction and death. If Africa wants to advance, it does not need more money. African leaders shouldn't be visiting Gleneagles. They should be visiting Pinky and the millions of other entrepreneurs like her. They should be removing the harmful laws that give power to brutal policemen and frustrate enterprise and self-reliance. But of course it suits this political elite to get hand outs from rich countries as it means they have to do less work to reform themselves and means they don't have to muddy their shoes by being concerned with the little people like Pinky.

If the G8 nations want to help Africa, they should slam the door in Mbeki's face; and not just because he is aiding and abetting the Mugabe regime, but because on Friday his own government ensured that Pinky and her children went to bed hungry and woke up on Saturday without any means of advancing themselves. If Geldof and Blair really want to make poverty history, they need to make the African elites that create poverty, history.

Tren is a director of the South Africa based health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria and co-author with Archbishop Pius Ncube and Dr Roger Bate of "State in Fear", a new report into the latest human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.