Shifting the Focus

“I have always been an activist, and today I still campaign for many issues. One of those just happens to be disability rights.” – Maxwell Moss, MP for Saldanha Bay
Positioned on the West Coast, Maxwell Moss has represented this community in Parliament since 1999. However his bond with them is much more than that of MP.
His mother is originally from Cape Town but moved to Saldanha before he was born. “I did my schooling in Saldanha. It was here were I learnt about politics and how the country was being run at that time. However, my active involvement in politics began when I began to work for a community newspaper in Atlantis, outside Cape Town.”
At the paper in the 1980s he was exposed to the issues facing the country. He became a member of the Atlantis Residents Association and got involved in youth structures. By the 1984 elections, when so-called “coloureds” were allowed to vote, he found himself back in Saldanha working for another community newspaper, The West Coast News.
“I’d had the opportunity to meet Trevor Manual in 1981 and he had inspired me. During the run up to the tri-cameral elections of 1984, I helped to distribute pamphlets and newsletters against the elections. However I also joined in protests and was arrested at one point, but was released the same day.”
He was approached to be a spy while working at the West Coast News. “I resigned immediately.”
Maxwell started the Saldanha Youth Congress - the forerunner to the ANC Youth League - and was actively involved in the United Democratic Front (UDF) as well as president of the South African Youth Congress of the Western Cape. “In 1990 I, along with other youth leaders, met with Nelson Mandela at his prison home in Paarl before his release. It was an amazing experience to meet this exceptional man.”
He also began to work for the South African Council of Churches and at the Saldanha Bay Advice Office. In 1992 he became an organiser for the National Union of Mineworkers of South Africa (NUMSA). “I was seconded by NUMSA to become an organiser for the ANC to set up structures on the West Coast up to what is today the Northern Cape border.”
On 11 November, 1993 Maxwell had a car accident. “I was very badly injured. In fact I owe my life to Leonard Barnes who was with me in the car. My spinal cord between my fifth and sixth vertebrate was broken completely and so severely that I could not travel by road and had to be airlifted to Conradie Hospital in Cape Town.”
After rehabilitation Maxwell returned to Saldanha to the advice office and continued his work. “I worked for eight hours a day - for me, my injury had not changed my life. In November 1996 I became the ward officer for White City, Saldanha and in June 1999 a Member of Parliament for the ANC.”
Parliament in 1999 was not the place it is today. And not only because of political changes. “Maria Rantho of the Disabled People South Africa (DPSA) was the forerunner of disabled people in parliament, and she made enormous changes in terms of disability issues such as access. At that time there were no ramps in Parliament at all.”
“However, when I arrived in 1999, there were still blockages. Today most offices are accessible with only a few that are not. My office is naturally accessible. There are many other improvements, but still some to come such as the gallery access and seating.”
Maxwell has not only seen many changes in Parliament but also in the country. “Firstly the legislation in place for disabled people is the best in the world. It ensures that disabled people are not discriminated against, have access to education that they can integrate into society and have dignity. Disabled issues are not social issues, but human rights,” he says.
But legislation does not necessarily guarantee implementation.
“The legislation is the best in the world, but implementation is a challenge. For example, there are less than one per cent of disabled people working for government. These figures are even worse for the private sector. Disabled people do not want to be dependent on grants, but to be able to integrate into society and this cannot happen if they are not financially independent.”
Another huge problem is transport. Distances that need to be travelled are often too long and, whilst public transport is cheap, it is not accessible. “In Cape Town there is Dial A Ride, but they sometimes do not arrive when you have called them.”
Maxwell is on the Transport Portfolio Committee and he has been assured by the CEO of Guatrain that it will be 100% accessible for all disabled people. “The infrastructure for 2010 has increased the move to accessibility, not only for people with disabilities but all people, such as pregnant women, women with children and the aged and frail.”
The point that is too often missed, he says, is that access is not for disabled people. “Access is useful for everyone in society, but too often it is disregarded because it is viewed as a disability issue. A study done by the South African Rail Commuter Corporation (SARCC) has shown that 33% of all South Africans, ie the ill, pregnant women, temporally injured, mothers with prams, etc could benefit from accessible trains.”
“I have always been an activist, and today I still campaign for many issues. One of those just happens to be disability rights. I am an ANC MP, not a disabled member and 90% of my contribution to society is for able-bodied society.”
“When I went back to Saldanha after my accident the community did not see me as a disabled person. I was still their community activist and leader and expected to do my work. As a result I integrated into society without many problems.”
“However, I was deeply moved when I went back to Saldanha on one occasion. I could not speak because the doctors had operated on my throat and in the process they cut my vocal cords as I had problems swallowing. Dr Allen Boesak, then-ANC chairperson for the Western Cape, came to Saldanha and the community had a welcome back event at the Diazville Sports Grounds for me. I was so frustrated that I could not talk to thank everyone at the event that I cried.”
Being a wheelchair user was not just something that Maxwell had to adjust too, but so did his family. “I have six children of which the youngest is 17 and in matric. It took my children a while to get used to me but children, whether your own or someone else’s, deal with disability a lot better than adults. They are not scared to look and to ask you, why are you in a wheelchair. So my children were not different. Today I do not even think they notice my wheelchair. They are always asking me to go to parent-teacher evenings. They do not hide me or from me. I am a normal father just as anyone else is.”
“Society’s perception of disability and people with disabilities is one of the things that need to change if we are to progress. Unfortunately there is still so much that needs to be accomplished in this regard.”
“I still get people in the shops talking to my assistant or whoever is with me and not to me. Ask me if I am ok, not the person with me! Too often people perceive me with shock that I am not bed-ridden and that I do all the things I used to before my accident. I work in the same arena, I work 12 to 18 hours a day, I spend time with my family and I go and watch live sports such as rugby and soccer. My mind is the same. It is people that must adapt, not me. People need to value someone in spite of their limits.”
“By the same token people with disability need to be educated to know their rights. This will push the legislation that is in place for them to work. Your local councillor must help you, even your mayor. You can also go to your local ANC office for help.”
Maxwell would like to assist our readers with any queries they may have in this regard. His cell phone number is 082 990 8690.When Air travel is not Fair travel
Some times you know that things happen to other people that are not good and you sympathise when they happen. However, when you are present when they happen, then you are shocked into a greater level of understanding. That happened to me when I met Maxwell at O.R. Tambo Airport in Johannesburg to conduct our interview.
It is an issue that pops up every now and again: Airline Travel. I have read in the papers of wheelchair users battling with airports and the airlines and various people have related their stories to me.
It became a reality on that Friday in February.
I waited for an hour and 20 minutes for Mr Moss to come out of the arrivals terminal. When he did, he told me that he had been waiting all that time to be assisted. When he was finally assisted and went to collect his wheelchair, he found it had been broken in transit.
This set off a series of dead-end conversations. Firstly at customer care where it appeared that no-one at Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) was willing to help. The manager there was too busy returning someone’s wallet and there was just no one else who could help. We were also told that it was an airline issue (South African Airlines) and not ACSA’s responsibility.
Regardless, another wheelchair was bought to Mr Moss, and I became aware of how little airports and airlines understand the needs of wheelchair users. The chair was a manual one (his is electric) and it was too broad for him to be able to sit in comfortably without moving around.
We moved on from customer care to find a quiet place to conduct the interview followed by the unused manual wheelchair. I must add here that two ladies – and I am not sure if they were from ACSA or SAA – who had come out with Mr Moss from the arrivals terminal stayed with us and tried their very best to help us.
We located a conference centre, but were not allowed access as it was not ready for use yet and only personnel from the airport were allowed in and out. At this point Maxwell produced his business card. Within only 10 to 15 minutes ACSA's terminal client manager, Feroza Khan, came to help us. I guess the words “Member of Parliament” on the card had an effect.
Feroza tried her best, but still no quiet room. She took us to her office where we then conducted the interview. She also re-booked Maxwell’s flight (after all this time of being moved from pillar to post he was never going to make his booked flight back to Cape Town) and made arrangements for him to go to the business lounge until his flight.
Client Manager, Customer Care O.R. Tambo International Airport, (ACSA), Michelle Kalkwarf’s feedback after the incident was that contact had been made with SAA and Swissport so that they could address the issue. ACSA’s Customer Care HOD has also made contact with Mr Moss to apologise for his awful experience.
SAA has also confirmed that they are in the process of repairing Mr Moss’ wheelchair.
The reluctance of the parties (SAA, Swissport and ACSA) to take responsibility on the day and the lack of education of the customer care officials to deal with the situation is disconcerting. They left us stranded in more than one way. If they are at all interested to assisting people with disabilities to travel on their airlines and use their facilities then they need to train and educate their people accordingly.
As Mr Moss said: “It is appalling to me that this happens. And it is not the first time it has happened to me. But what really bothers me is that if it is happening to me, what about people who are not perceived to be ‘an important’ person? With the 2010 World Cup around the corner the air travel stakeholders had better change and quickly.”

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