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From time to time, history presents a generation with opportunities for intensive learning and, I imagine, that history requires of us to take these lessons and effect corrections to our practice. We have the responsibility to reflect on these lessons, so that we can understand what happens in a society where a close family friend allegedly murders 11-year-old Annastacia Wiese and shoves her body in the ceiling of her house. Can we begin to understand such a society?

The current generation of policy makers, business leaders, community activists, youth - but more importantly all citizens - have the unique opportunity to use the lessons of our time to construct a society that cares, that can listen and act against inequality and injustice.

So what are the challenges for Cape Town, this rather peculiar African city? Are we at risk? Who cares? Who listens? Who acts?

Are we seizing history's gift to us? More particularly, are we prepared to internalise the lessons and effect the corrections to our own world and our own sphere of influence?

If there are two cities that Capetonians have always wanted Cape Town to be when she grows up, it would be New Orleans and Paris.

New Orleans, the Big Easy, the soul kitchen, the multicultural melting pot that has always been much admired. But beneath the cool exterior of the Big Easy lies masked an underbelly of deep poverty and racism so poignantly illustrated to the world through the images of the floods in New Orleans in August 2005.

The floods claimed more than 1 800 lives and destroyed more than 800 000 buildings. It took the US federal government four days to respond to the disaster.

The New Orleans flood control budget was cut significantly and critics argue that the flooding was an avoidable disaster. We have now learnt that black people were isolated to the swampy low-lying areas like the Lower Ninth Ward.

Is Cape Town anything like New Orleans?

Paris, the City of Lights, Home of the Bastille and the Paris Commune, the centre of romance and of intellectual discourse, of Sartre and De Beauvoir, and the 1968 uprising.

Yet, a stone's throw from the Latin Quarter and the Sorbonne lie Clichy-sous-Bois and Evry and Corbeil, areas that witnessed the eruption of the racially fuelled riots by French youths. On October 27, 2005 violence was sparked by the death of two teenagers who were electrocuted while hiding from the police in an electrical substation. About 7 500 cars and dozens of buildings were torched. More than 2 200 people were arrested.

The attacks were carried out mostly by young Arab and black residents in poor suburban communities who complain of economic misery and racial discrimination. The French riots saw the declaration of a state of emergency and curfews. The actions by the youths stunned the French nation and the world.

Is this the same delusion that we suffer from when we hope that the beauty of Table Mountain and the cruel memory of Robben Island will detract attention from Mitchell's Plain, Khayelitsha, Manenberg and Nyanga?

What do we see? Who cares? Who listens? Who acts?

It is very necessary that we know the underbelly of Cape Town, the Western Cape and South Africa to ensure that we can act and that we act both correctly and timeously.

Let us look at a few of the socio-economic indicators in the province. Since 80% of the provincial population lives in the city, it is fair to accept the statistics between the city and province as reasonable proxies for each other.

In 2003, just over 38 000 young people in the province wrote the matric examination. Of the total, just over 33 000 or 87% passed. Of those who passed, 27.1% obtained university endorsement. Of the total number who wrote, 4 268 (11%) passed with mathematics on the higher grade and 3 937 (10%) passed with physical science on the higher grade.

So we start with a small number of school-leavers (11%) who can be trained in higher level skills at universities. Fifty-seven percent of the learners are from the Eastern Metropole and the Northern Metropole. The question we must look at and address, is just how many are included in the 4 268 passes with mathematics on the higher grade?

Of the maths higher grade passes, there are 220 African, 853 coloured and 201 Indian learners. So how many learners passed mathematics on the higher grade at Cape Flats schools?

Why has it become so easy to limit the opportunities of learners by not placing enough emphasis on the importance of mathematics and science? Surely this must be repaired through extra effort in the schooling system all the way from pre-school to matric.

Who cares? Who listens? Who acts?

Let me also draw attention to a second set of indicators - employment. The national unemployment rate is 26.5%, but for young people, under the age of 25 it is 52% and for those between 25 and 34 it is 31%. In the Western Cape, the unemployment rate among the youth aged 16 to 25 stands at fewer than 50%.

It is not as though jobs are not being created - between 2000 and 2003, 194 000 new jobs were created, at a rate higher than the national average - but the number of young people joining the labour market by far exceeds the older people leaving it, hence the build-up of unemployed youth.

Let me add a gentle reminder, that unlike France, Germany or many other countries, we do not have a system of welfare benefits for the unemployed who have never worked. Unemployment at such high levels is obviously the biggest risk facing both the province and the city.

A large chunk of the answer to unemployment lies in upgrading the available skills - none of this will happen without that huge investment in maths and science education, without which investment opportunities will remain in those sectors that have far lower prospects of dynamic growth.

An enormous concern that we should discuss in the context of labour absorption is the fact that school dropout rates are horrendously high. A mere 45% to 52% of those who enroll at Grade 1 reach Grade 12.

Who cares? Who is listening? Does the French experience of unemployed youth talk to us? Who acts?

A third telling set of indicators is the causes of death. Homicide is the top cause of death in Cape Town (10.6% of all deaths) - that is 70 per 100 000. The highest rates are in Nyanga (133) and Khayelitsha (120) and the lowest rates in Blaauwberg (33) and the South Peninsula (35).

Aids-related deaths feature third on the list of causes of death and affect more women than men. Road accidents are the ninth cause of death - again the highest rates are in Nyanga and Khayelitsha and the lowest in Blaauwberg and the South Peninsula (The risk is seven times greater in Nyanga than in the South Peninsula).

The truth about health care is that large chunks of disease can be prevented by attending to a range of "other" issues, including services like water and sanitation and a huge investment in education, to try and alter the conduct of people.

Who cares? Who is listening? How will we drive the changes?

The fourth telling indictment is in the crime statistics. In general terms, more affluent areas will have more property-related crime while poor, disadvantaged areas experience more serious violent crime. The police service areas that are treated as priority areas as they have higher crime levels over a period are Khayelitsha, Mitchell's Plain, Kuils River, Nyanga, Gugulethu and Philippi.

Homicide rates are significantly higher than the national average, burglaries are twice the national average and child abuse is almost three times the national average. (It was reported that in just one week 23 victims of child abuse were admitted to the Red Cross Hospital.)

None of this is surprising - the links between crime and poverty are circular - poverty leads to crime and crime then leads to further poverty. The linkages between inequality reduction, poverty reduction and growth are central to dealing with the extent and nature of crime.

Cape Town reads like A Tale of Two Cities. We must be aware of the phenomenon, its location and its dimensions - because we care, we listen and we want to act.

But, to act correctly, to ensure that we ingest the gifts of history's lessons, we must pause and ask a few questions about the nature of the society we want to bequeath to future generations.

How do we develop the value system associated with basic humanness - values such as community, as plough-back, as ubuntu, as vuk' uzenzele?

How do we, as a society, bypass this crass materialism that wants to suggest that the only measure of our contribution is the cost of our possessions? How do we construct those deep partnerships that bring the poor into action about matters that affect their daily lives; where such action is deliberate and not dependent on protest?

But, who are the agents of change? Who will act as our collective conscience?

Who will ensure that we do not repeat the errors that history begs us to avoid?

Who indeed? There are many challenges ahead and work to be done.

Let me share with you snippets of the many wonderful stories of people who work to make a difference:

"I find them in the Bambanani campaign that has measurably reduced violent crime,

"I see them in groups of people who plough back into the depressed areas in the Eastern Metropole whence they come,

"I know them from their tireless work in pre-school education,

"I experienced them as the teachers who still see teaching as a vocation and commit to saving young people from the destructive downward spirals of drugs, gangsterism and crime,

"I have marvelled at the individuals who commit their time as sports administrators in depressed communities."

There is a long, long list of dynamic, wonderful people who see, who hear, who feel and who respond. They make this city a better place to live and give hope to thousands of young people filled with energy and drive to make a contribution to this society.

And we want to say to these special, determined individuals and groups not to lose patience, to keep the hope alive and to lead us into battle against catastrophe. The future of Cape Town is a bright and prosperous one and we all must do our equal share to care, to listen, to act in order to mitigate the risks.

Trevor Manuel is the Minister of Finance
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