The shooting of football star Senzo Meyiwa has initiated a national frenzy of mourning. But he isn’t the only brilliant young South African to have his life snuffed out prematurely. RICHARD POPLAK wonders if this country isn’t hardwired to kill its young.
Let’s help the grim reaper with the past several weeks’ tally: three young, extraordinary South African men, scythed down like corn. There are, of course, many more to add to this unhappy list, and women too, but I’d argue that the three I’m concerned with function as representatives for the rest. Not only because they were famous—two of the three were not household names, despite their achievements—and not because they died in similar ways, because they didn’t. Rather, the three men made claims for the diversity of talent in this country, and they remind us how easily we erase such talent, scrape it away, junk it. There is something deep within the national circuit board hardwired for self-sabotage. If we can’t keep the best among us from toppling into the abyss, I can’t help wondering, what hope is there for the rest of us?
We might as well do this in sequence: the first to go was a photographer named Thabiso Sekgala. My wife introduced me to his work about two years ago, and as an avowed maximalist I was struck by Sekgala’s principled minimalism, by the control and care and love that he exhibited for his subject matter. He photographed the deep quiet of rural South Africa, both the people and their places, and he refused to judge, refused to sensationalise, refused to transform our flyover country into an unknowable hinterland filled with exotic humanoids. There was no violence in his work, but rather a fathomless empathy for the remarkable unremarkableness of lived life. Scroll through his Homeland series and dare to tell me that this isn’t the work of a major talent.
But this species of art sucks at the soul like an ancient lorry on a floundering car battery. Sekgala hanged himself in his Johannesburg flat on October 16, and his death recalled the sad self-erasure of similarly sensitive black South African artists, like the writer K. Sello Duiker. The world is vicious, and Sekgala’s work was subject to a market that wants its African art to be African—which is to say, concerned with outside perceptions of what Africa might be, or the subversion of those perceptions with a winking irony that assures those outsiders that they’re in on the joke. Although Sekgala had achieved a measure of success and recognition, one suspects that the market wanted something more from him, something wilder, something un-Sekgala. South Africa, brute home of unrefined capital, offered him no protection. As photographer Sabelo Mlangeni told the Mail & Guardian, “I am seeing his decision as a very brave one.” But wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t ask our artist to be so damned courageous?
Next up on the grim reaper’s to-do list, South Africa’s most decorated track athlete, Mbulaeni Mulaudzi. Strange thing about Mulaudzi, he never really got the recognition he deserved—in a country full of blowhards, where a certain runners and their respective controversies received most of the media’s oxygen, Mulaudzi never quite achieved stardom. His major 800m wins, which included a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics, gold at the 2009 World Champs, and a gold in the 2002 Commonwealth Games, were more astonishing considering the fact that South Africa isn’t considered a track athlete factory. Although Mulaudzi never held the national 800m record, he is the most talented middle distance runner this country has ever produced.
At 34, Malaudzi was one year older than Sekgaga. Now, he too is dead. In the early hours of Saturday morning, driving on the R555 between Ogies and Emalahleni, Mulaudzi lost control of his vehicle, missed a bend, and became another road fatality statistic. You could argue that his death doesn’t articulate anything other than the fact that life on earth is deadly, but statistics have their own inexorable pull: there were 12,200 deaths on South African roads in 2012, over 27 people per 100,000. That’s a lot of people. According to a World Health Organization report, the most vulnerable sector of the population on the roads is young men; 62 percent of those killed are between the ages of 15 and 44. This results in an annual massacre that costs the South African economy over R300 billion, and wipes away legions of our most productive humans. If you want to go in search of this country’s potential, you’ll find it in a heap of twisted metal and flesh by the side of the M1.
Or, I suppose, in a chalk outline. Which brings us to Item Number Three on the list. Senzo Meyiwa, captain of Orlando Pirates, skipper of Bafana Bafana, catcher of balls, slayer of goals. Dude was on his way to becoming a national institution; now, he’s another crime stat, shot in his girlfriend’s house in Ekurhuleni during a robbery. There has been much (inexact) speculation as to what transpired and why, but I’m uninterested in the tabloid particulars: all that matters is that a bullet punctured his back and exited his front, which was it for Meyiwa. Around 3200 or so will be murdered in Gauteng alone this year. So Meyiwa becomes little more than a number that gets us to a number.
The police have set up a massive dragnet, and have placed a R250,000 bounty on his killers’ heads—two men who are said to have made off with nothing more than a mobile phone. This fuss is perfectly understandable when a 27-year-old man has lost his life for absolutely no reason; sadly, in South Africa’s case, fame is the only thing that motivates the authorities to get their cop on. Of the several thousand murders in Gauteng this year, the police are concentrating their resources on one. Some might argue that Meyiwa’s murder will nudge the government out of its deep slumber regarding the national crime rate. But without significantly remapping the social order in this country—without making it a more equal, less contested place—the government can’t do shit. So more Meyiwas will fall, followed by more hand-wringing and more big promises. Followed by nothing. These are the ruts we travel.
What hope is there for a country that cannot get its best and its brightest—or hell, just about anybody—safely through forty years of life? Why is the whole landscape lousy with bear traps and landmines and ghouls with guns? In the past two weeks, three very different men, who had much to contribute to this society, lost their lives under very different circumstances. But the combined loss reminds us how little care we take with young lives in general, and young black lives in particular.
This has always been a violent, terrible place. But the democratic project was meant to make it less violent and less terrible. So far, not so much.
What we’ve lost in the past two weeks we will never regain: Sekgawa’s devastatingly subtle photography; Mulaudzi’s institutional memory as an Olympian; Meyiwa’s prowess beneath the crossbar. All gone. Meanwhile, the government pathologises youth, excellence remains death sentence, and we fill up cemeteries with our future. But if we’re going to wipe ourselves out so thoroughly, we might want to consider leaving a note, so whatever or whomever comes after us doesn’t repeat our manifold screw-ups. DM