[This is an edited version of an article I wrote two years ago.]
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 National Party won the General Election 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. Various boycotts were applied. 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.
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.
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.
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.