by Peta Thornycroft
From the Editor: The following story appeared in the Johannesburg Mail and Guardian on July 27, 2001. In many ways South Africa continues to demonstrate to the world how to build community in the twenty-first century. This story illustrates yet another way in which South Africa is doing valuable things. Here it is:
Johannesburg—The disabled have taken their struggle to Parliament with remarkable results.
"It's all getting better. We are getting more jobs now. We no longer feel like rejects. People with disabilities even appear in television dramas, like ‘Soul City,'" says partially sighted MP [Member of Parliament] Hendrietta Bogopane (thirty).
Bogopane is one of eleven disabled MPs in Parliament, who are not necessarily all African National Congress loyalists, but sit on their benches. She says she is an optimist, but even she is surprised at how far disabled people have come since the first democratic election.
Bogopane was born blind, had several operations as a child and can now see a little, but was chucked out of school before matric [matriculation] because she told the principal she had been raped by a teacher. The authorities believed the teacher, not her, and at seventeen Bogopane was left with a baby from that violent union.
Rejected by her father, it seemed there was no hope for this unskilled teenage mother, literally stumbling around in the dark. Bogopane was rescued by her grandmother, wrote six subjects for matric, passed them, and began meeting blind people. She got some piecework, joined organizations, and discovered how hard it was for a disabled person to survive in South Africa.
And so she became an activist. Before the 1994 election Bogopane and colleagues looked around for the political home to advance their cause. "I was a member of the ANC, but not all of us were. They used the Disability Rights Charter they had produced as a bargaining chip. The ANC established a disability unit."
Within three years the national disability strategy was passed, and the unit was moved to the Office of the Deputy President because, Bogopane says, disability is not a welfare issue but one of human rights.
Bogopane and her colleagues succeeded in getting inclusive education for the disabled, even before the Schools Act was passed. Now children with many disabilities can go to any school. Tertiary institutions have also established disability units.
"The Employment Equity Act is having an effect. It is slow and there have been problems, but its demands are gradually being realized." Bogopane says many companies became "hysterical" when the Act was passed. She says there were few consultants available to address companies' fears. Some consultants were only in it for the money, she says, and most were fully abled and couldn't get to grips with the issues.
"But, bit by bit, some of the fruits of the disabled's struggle for their place in the sun are ripening. There is still stereotyping. Blind people are mostly employed as switchboard operators, but the equity plans presently being submitted to the Department of Labor are going to show that real progress has been made," Bogopane says.
The Department of Labor has established a disability unit to ensure progress and to check on any corporate cheating or misunderstandings in employment returns. The public service is way below its goal of employing 2 percent of disabled people by this year, but Bogopane says this has been acknowledged at the top.
"Posts are being advertised differently, and recruitment strategies are being adjusted," she says. Bogopane says a job cannot merely be advertised; people have to be found through links with organizations for disabled people.
Eight years after assuming membership of Parliament, Bogopane is nostalgic about her activist days. "Parliament is very boring; my mind starts wandering; I have too much energy
to be in such a restricted environment; but I am chairing an important joint [National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces] monitoring committee on the improvement of the quality of life and status of children, youth, and disabled people."
Disabled MP's say they are independent of the ANC. "We have to be ourselves and are not bound by the party. We argue with them a lot; we won't say something is right or wrong for the sake of it. Going in with the ANC was a deal, not a compromise. But they do recognize us as disability experts. We are in Parliament on behalf of all the disabled. We have had parliamentary rules changed to accommodate us. We now have a guide dog in Parliament and a sign language interpreter. For us, the disabled, there is really a new South Africa. Not only are we now accepted as part of the mainstream of society, but we are getting jobs."
She cites "Soul City," the television series on health and welfare issues, as an example. "[‘Soul City'] created a new role for the current series, a deaf doctor who heads up the Masakhane Clinic. That's amazing."
Bogopane supports twenty-two members of her family who live in her house. In return her older relatives look after her children when she is beating the disabled movement's drum in Cape Town.