South Africa

While His Guitar Gently Weeps

By Rebecca Davis 11 July 2013

The story of Lunga Goodman Nono, the blind busker whose guitar was smashed by police during an assault on Monday, was greeted with shock and outrage around the country. On Wednesday, musicians and supporters gathered in Cape Town’s city centre to protest against the treatment of Nono. While the busker himself may end up coming out of this rather well, disturbing questions remain about the use of excessive force by police. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Lunga Goodman Nono wasn’t to be found at his normal spot on St George’s Mall on Tuesday. The busker took what he told the Cape Argus was his first day off in five years, to recover from his brutal treatment at the hands of metro police officers on Monday.

On Wednesday he returned to his spot, but under drastically different circumstances than normal. In the 48 hours since his assault, Nono has become a cause célèbre: when he made his appearance on Wednesday it was as guest of honour at a demonstration organised to protest against his mistreatment.

It’s all been a very 21st Century affair: social media was the conduit for the spreading of cellphone footage of Nono’s assault and social media was the vehicle for organising the protest in his defence. Some of those who turned out did so with musical instruments: one young man strummed his guitar while wearing a blindfold as a symbol of solidarity with Nono’s disability.

“SAPS: Cape Town’s Most Dangerous Gang”, read one sign, with commendable outrage but dubious accuracy – the police in question were apparently metro cops, employed by the municipality, rather than SAPS members.

“Beat Drums Not Buskers”, said another; “Cops or Robbers?” questioned one. “Take Steve Hofmeyr Instead”, one wit’s placard pleaded.

Organiser Tommy le Roux, a keen musician with a sideline in advertising, said that one goal of the protest was to change municipal bylaws that classify buskers as beggars. Another was to extend the period in which musicians can busk, currently restricted to between 12:45 and 14:00 daily.

“This really limits their earning potential and they’re actually doing something good for the city,” Le Roux told the Daily Maverick. Le Roux said he thought Nono had a “really unusual style”, but added “the issue is bigger than this one busker”.

Photo: City musicians turned out to Wednesday’s protest to demonstrate their support for Nono (Rebecca Davis)

When the busker in question arrived, he was greeted – appropriately enough – like a rock star. Accompanied by his wife Abigail and 10-year-old daughter Portia, Nono was dapper in a grey suit. “He looks so handsome today,” a woman in the crowd murmured. Supporters jostled to hear him as he addressed onlookers in Xhosa, his words translated into English by a bystander.

“I was so hurt,” Nono said, recalling Monday’s incident. “I told them my guitar belongs to me; they said they’ll take it by force… They did this in front of my wife and my child.” When Nono – who reportedly makes around R150 a day – said that he had also been made to pay a R1,500 fine, there were cries of “Hayibo!” and “Shame!” from his audience.

“I want them to know that in future they must not assault any blind person like me,” Nono said. He thanked the crowd for all the support he had received: in addition to financial donations and having his guitar replaced, Nono has also received the offer of recording a song. His lawyer, Aadil Kirsten, said that Nono was “a bit overwhelmed” by all the attention. Nono wiped his eyes with a handkerchief several times and, with journalists crowding around the family a little later, his wife Abigail burst into tears.

One of the people on hand to support Nono was Philip Bam, executive director of the Cape Town-based organisation LOFOB (League of Friends of the Blind). Bam told the Daily Maverick that LOFOB was attending the event to take a stand for the rights of the blind community. “Whoever must enforce the law, must do so with respect and sensitivity for their position,” Bam said.

Bam said that of South Africa’s population of around 250,000 blind people, about 40,000 live in Cape Town. “It is very difficult for them to find formal employment because the economy is not inclusive of them,” he stated. “Therefore, if blind people have a chance to ply a trade or a talent, they must be allowed to do so.”

The Nono affair has amounted to some fairly awful PR for the City of Cape Town. “DA Mother City is heartless”, read one placard, summing up a response that appears to have been not uncommon on social media.

Mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith initially took an unrepentant line, telling the Cape Argus that Nono had “repeatedly disregarded regulations and was verbally abusive” – charges denied by Nono. As the extent of the negative publicity became clear, however, other politicians have scrambled to demonstrate greater empathy.

Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille released a statement in the wake of the protest expressing her “sincere regret at the handling of the deeply unfortunate incident involving Mr Lunga Goodman Nono earlier this week”. De Lille said that three law enforcement officers involved in the incident have already been suspended and an investigation is ongoing. The mayor also indicated that a review of the bylaws governing busking will be undertaken: “We need to ensure that we maintain the necessary balance between upholding law and order and the right to artistic and other forms of expression at all times,” De Lille said.

City councillor Dave Bryant confirmed to the Daily Maverick that discussions were ongoing about how best to accommodate buskers in the city centre. “It’s important to remember that enforcement operations relating to noise disturbances (including the incident with Mr Nono) are in response to complaints from members of the public,” Bryant said via email. “That said, there are many spots across the Cape Town CBD where buskers would be able to perform without causing disturbance. The challenge is to identify these spaces, ensure that the buskers are not using amplified sound/loud drums etc and manage them effectively.”

Bryant, who in his free time plays drums for a band called The Swingsetters, added: “I’m trying my best to find a workable solution and hope we can get some more vibrancy onto the streets of the CBD soon.”

While the bylaws relating to city busking may be in need of amendment, the more urgent issue thrown up by Nono’s assault is surely that of the police’s heavy-handed approach to a non-threatening situation. A representative from SANTOC – the South African No Torture Consortium – was on hand at Tuesday’s protest to emphasise this point.

“We came here today because we see police brutality as a form of torture,” Sharon Vermaak, a counsellor at the Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture, told the Daily Maverick. This is because police are state officials. SANTOC has been instrumental in the shaping of the Prevention and Combating of Torture Bill, introduced to parliament in May last year and still being deliberated on.

Because torture is not currently a discrete crime category in South Africa, it is difficult to gauge its extent: one of the issues that the bill would attempt to address. “We see quite a few incidents [of police brutality], but often people are too scared to report it,” Vermaak said. The draft Torture Bill would make provision for compensation to victims of torture by any state official, or by any person acting on behalf of a state official.

For Lunga Goodman Nono, a horrible incident appears to be heading for a happy ending: a new guitar, a recording offer and widespread public sympathy. Nono is also pursuing legal action against the relevant police officers.

For other victims of police brutality, such as Mozambican taxi driver Mido Macia, there will be no such silver lining. DM

Read more:

  • Goodman Nono and the darkness of our system’s soul in Daily Maverick, a column by Alex Eliseev.

Photo: Busker Lunga Goodman Nono is flanked by wife Abigail and attorney Aadil Kirsten as he addresses journalists and supporters on Wednesday. (Rebecca Davis)

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