In order for a population to be able to be in a good state of mental health (and good health in general), government – as the primary duty-bearer – must create a climate necessary for people to achieve these states. Positive conditions for growth and development must be fostered and people must have faith that their needs are being met. Unfortunately many of the actions of government leave a lot wanting in this regard. Personal circumstances can lead to a person having difficulty coping with the challenges with which they are faced or not being able to contribute in the manner in which they would otherwise be able. Add to this government failing to provide for and protect its people, thus placing everyone in a precarious position and condemning them to a state of unhappiness and dissatisfaction, and a bleak picture starts to emerge.
According to the 7th World Happiness Report released this year, South Africa has been ranked one of the unhappiest nations in the world- something shocking in a country meant to embrace concepts such as the spirit of Ubuntu. One example of how South Africans are disempowered and sometimes plunged into a state of despair at a large scale is the failure of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs).
Eskom is a poignant example. Day after day and night after night, people in South Africa are left without electricity, unable to work or function at school during the day and then plunged into darkness in the evenings, unable to prepare food, charge appliances or engage in other forms of activities for themselves and their families. The threat of national blackouts looms large for all those living in South Africa and people are bewildered, confused and angered by this state of affairs. This lost productivity prevents people from making contributions to their full potential, which can lead to an immense sense of anxiety and often a sense that one is failing their employer or their loved ones. This in turn could diminish their mental health.
According to Stats SA, 55.5% of people lived in poverty in South Africa in 2015, up from 53,2% in 2011, indicating that poverty is on the rise. It is difficult for impoverished members of society to escape the poverty traps in which they find themselves. We are all too familiar with hearing about worsening unemployment and poor education, but until South Africa gets out of this economic rut it becomes difficult to create jobs and to provide opportunities for people to gain qualifications- least of all in the face of an ill-managed public purse. A measurement called the Gini-Coefficient demonstrates income inequality. South Africa’s stood at a high 0.69 as reported by Stats SA in 2017. Lack of scope for growth on a personal and professional level leads to loss of confidence and hope, and a diminution of the idea that a person can create a better life for their children or make a positive contribution to society. Financial freedom is empowering. Absence of this freedom leads to disenfranchisement and feelings of worthlessness. This is also a catalyst for poor mental health, given the sense of insecurity it creates.
Corruption within government also leads to a loss of trust in the state. Mismanagement of funds and criminal charges being brought against high-level politicians leads to a loss of faith in those responsible for the running of the country. With phenomena such as state capture emerging it sometimes seems as if all hope is lost. It is nearly impossible to envisage how people can be expected to be in a good state of mental health amid such chaos, and possibly why we have been ranked as such an unhappy nation.
The general elections are upon us. Ultimately, many feel that the party they will choose to vote for in the May elections will be the “best of a bad bunch”. While all political parties promise positive changes in their own ways, a large number of people have simply lost their faith in the promises of political parties. According to a poll released by the Institute for Race Relations in 2018, there is likely to be a lower voter turnout in comparison to the 2014 elections due to factors such as high levels of voter discontent, which leads to voter apathy. The fact that people are not even willing to vote is both telling and concerning.
All that can be done at this point is to issue a reminder and a caution. The people of South Africa must remember that we have a Constitution guaranteeing a full complement of rights, and contains a careful construction of rights and responsibilities of government. It provides for the clear separation of powers of the three branches of government, striving to guarantee good governance. We have a comprehensive legal and policy framework, which prioritises human dignity, equality and freedom and a society which has largely embraced constitutional democracy. Political parties claim to want the best for their constituents. In all of the manifestos is a clear desire to undertake what they feel will better the lives of their voter base. Not everyone will agree with all of their views, but then one does not have to vote for them. That is the beauty of democracy. We caution these parties, however, about making promises they can’t keep and betraying those who vote for them.
The problems with SOEs have to be addressed, a decrease in poverty must urgently occur, and corruption must be rooted out.
Finally, the public must hold those serving them accountable. Advocacy and self-advocacy- doing things that empower those around you as well as yourself-surrounding the aforesaid issues are key to realising the Constitutional prescripts of Democracy. Democracy has not failed as some would have us believe. The overwhelming majority of us want to get along and co-exist peacefully. For this reason we must band together in ensuring that our common goals- a good life, where services are delivered properly and where the state is honest, open and transparent- come to fruition.
South Africans must take opportunities to voice their outrage with a view to secure redress. They must make use of the courts system and stage peaceful protests when something objectionable happens, must seek to obtain and provide civic education to remain informed and to place themselves in a position where they can proliferate knowledge, take political stances on important issues, and make use of the country’s vibrant civil society services such as law clinics, advocacy groups or those organisations providing direct services.
Through these endeavours, collective disempowerment can be transformed into collective empowerment- something that is good for morale and will boost the mental health of the people of South Africa.
Our country is presently in a precarious state and the mental health of its people is suffering as a result.
Poor mental health, as a result of collective disempowerment, could lead to large-scale negativity, mental illnesses, apathy, lawlessness, civic unrest and stress if it is not addressed.
Let us improve the state of our country and in turn our mental health.