This essay was written in 2013, but not accepted for publication.
Autism Rights in South Africa: an opportunity lost
South Africa is a nation with a Constitution hailed as one of the most progressive in the world. It states that discrimination on the grounds of Race, Religion, Gender, Sexual Orientation and physical and mental disability is prohibited. With that, one would think that Autistics in South Africa are quite well off in comparison with other countries. Sadly, that is not the case. The state’s capacity to uphold the rights of the disabled has been undermined by historic factors, bad recent choices and current realities.
In 1948, the then South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts lost the General Election to the National Party. The National Party had been opposed to South Africa joining World War 2 on the Allied side, and introduced apartheid. This was a system of laws intended to discriminate against non-white South Africans. Skilled, highly paid jobs were reserved for whites only. Non-whites were given inferior facilities, treatment and education. Black South Africans had it the worst but Indian South Africans and Coloureds (mixed-race South Africans) also faced discrimination.
In the 1960’s the international community began placing sanctions on South Africa to force the government to abandon apartheid. Economic, sporting and cultural boycotts were applied. Companies disinvested, sports teams stopped touring South Africa, South African sportsmen and women were banned from the Olympics, certain films and plays were not shown here and research and technologies were no longer shared with South African scientists and institutions. Despite this, apartheid persisted until F.W. De Klerk became president in 1989. In 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison and in 1994 he became South Africa’s first ever democratically elected president. In 1996 Mandela signed South Africa’s Constitution into law.
As the Constitution proclaims the rights of the disabled, the state is supposed to enforce them. Due to our racist past, the priority has been to rectify race based inequalities. This has often been at the expense of the rights of other marginalised groups, particularly the disabled. A newspaper article that I read claimed that disabled job-seekers in South Africa were being overlooked for jobs. The overwhelming focus on race meant that discrimination against the disabled was able to continue without proper intervention to stop it.
After 1994, there was a concerted drive to eliminate past inequalities. White government employees were offered retrenchment packages and non-whites were actively recruited. Transformation was rushed, and this was the first mistake. The resignation and early retirement of large numbers of skilled and experienced civil servants eroded the institutional knowledge so vital to any organisation’s proper functioning. Many retrenched government workers had to be hired back at great cost as consultants to train their replacements. Despite this, the civil service still hasn’t recovered completely. Recent audits by the Auditor-General’s office still reveal massive irregularities and inefficiencies. This has affected the state’s ability to deliver services to all people, including the disabled, and to protect everyone’s constitutional rights.
Because of the sanctions applied during apartheid, a lot of research into autism did not reach South Africa. In addition, technologies that could have helped autistics were prevented from coming here. Apple briefly had a presence in South Africa before disinvesting. It returned after the end of apartheid and has a full scale presence now. This is fortunate, as Apple products, especially the iPad, have been used in teaching autistics.
In 2007 the subprime crisis began, triggering a global financial slowdown. In South Africa, tight restrictions had prevented local banks investing in toxic assets. Many bankers who had previously griped about the laws thanked their lucky stars for them. Despite this, the slowdown has still had a negative effect. Exports have fallen and this has seen the South African economy contract and shed large numbers of jobs with a corresponding drop in tax revenues. Consequently, government funding to charities and non-governmental organisations (including those providing training and support to autistics) has been cut.
Civic Society in South Africa has taken a role. South African golfer Ernie Els has an autistic son and began the Els for Autism Foundation. In 2009, it held the first Els for Autism Pro-Am tournament in Florida. The event raised money for The Renaissance Learning Center, a school for autistic children.
The Key School, founded in 1973, is the oldest school for autistic children in South Africa. In 2011, it pioneered the use of iPads as aids for autistics in South Africa. In 2012, it nearly had to close down due to a lack of funding. The National Lottery Fund initially refused help, then reconsidered. The Els Foundation and Oppenheimer Memorial Trust also gave funding. Currently, Scott Allen and David McAlpine are travelling from Casablanca to Johannesburg using only public transport to raise R100 000 for the Key School.
Autism South Africa (website http://www.aut2know.co.za/) was founded in 1989 in South Africa. It has a National Executive Committee. Pleasingly, Craig Thompson, one of the current committee members, is an adult autistic. The organisation recently launched a poster campaign that inadvertently caused an outcry. Posters were hung mentioning myths about autistics, like “Autism is for violent people”. The posters refuted the myths, but most people saw the massive slogan, not the small print refutation. The posters have been withdrawn, but a television advert that also corrected the myths went ahead.
One of the downsides of South Africa’s reintegration into the world community is that antivaccination propaganda has begun springing up. An increasing number of comments making false claims about vaccines (including the nonexistent correlation between vaccination and autism) have shown up on local news websites. Some have repeated the “Bill Gates admitted that vaccines are to depopulate the world” lie. Disreputable sources of “information” like Natural News have also been cited.
The situation of autism awareness and accommodation in South Africa is the story of an opportunity lost. When I think back to my childhood, I know that things are far better now than they were then. However, I am also keenly aware that they are not nearly as good as they could have been.