Opinionista Yusuf Omar 18 June 2013

Mandela and the rhino

An oxygen mask presses down on his cheeks and covers his nose. A plastic tube runs out in an arc from his left nostril. It fills with blood. Each breath louder than the last; rasping, spraying a fine mist of mucus into the air, gradually settling on the tired, square face. I stand there, looking. Then it hits me – somewhere in Pretoria, another South African icon is fighting to survive.

Nelson Mandela is dying.

Out in the bush, our cell phones muster up just enough signal to blurt the SMS. “Mandela back in hospital. This time it’s serious.”

The Al Jazeera and CCTV reporters suddenly jump around like startled Springboks. “Back to the lodge! We need to be in Joburg, now!” The ranger turns his head, not sure what all the fuss is about. The journos don’t mince their words. “Are you even listening? Do you know how big this is? Mandela! In hospital!”

We all know the drill by now. Madiba is back in hospital, so anyone remotely linked to the newsroom is on standby. We can’t leave Gauteng till further notice. The Mandela story will be bigger than anything South African TV has ever seen – an asteroid hitting our collective conscience. It will change the landscape. And so we brace for impact.

There are already enough satellites outside the heart clinic to guide a shuttle to Mars. And everyone is talking an alien language. “Recurring lung infection”. “Serious but stable”. “Pulmonary expert”. Reporters hang on every syllable out of Mac Maharaj’s mouth. They munch on McDonald’s between Twitter updates. Breaking news: The presidency says doctors are doing the best they can.

I decide to stick it out in the bush. Don’t get me wrong. I can’t stop thinking about Madiba. He’s in a hospital bed, hundreds of miles away. I’m in the middle of nowhere. But I’m here to tell a story, and it’s a story that matters.

A 60-million-year-old species is being systematically slaughtered. And this country can’t seem to do anything about it. We all know it’s happening. Rhino die every day. But now I’m seeing it for myself. Up close and personal. Thick, smooth muscle. A leather skin that’s faded in the sun. Two eyes staring back at me, cold and empty.

A ranger picks up his two-way and radios in. “White (rhino) down. Shot approximately two hours. Dead.”
Flies have beaten his colleagues to the scene. The grass is flattened 10 metres in each direction, evidence that the animal kept fighting long after the bullet pierced her heart.

I look down and it seems the ground can’t soak up any more blood. There are puddles of it now. Crimson splashes dot a nearby tree – some as high as two metres up the trunk. When the rhino stood firm, they hacked at its Achilles tendons with a blunt panga. Footprints indicate they then stood on its head, chopping at the nose till the horn came off.

Death is in the air. But it’s more than a smell. Vultures have set up camp on the Acacia tree nearby. Eyes glued to the scene. Watching. Waiting.

The shooting is not even 10 kilometres from where we were, just minutes ago. But I realise I didn’t hear the shot. Silencer, maybe? Sniffer dogs pick up the scent of a suspect and lead us to a hole in the park fence. Then nothing. “It’s like chasing ghosts,” says the ranger. “These people disappear in an instant.”

Back at the carcass: ‘Zzzzzzz.’ Using an electric chainsaw the forensics teams pry open the gas-inflated chest, which is already rock hard. They remove the bullet. It’s a simple act – the vets take a quick look at the cartridge and throw it in a box. But somehow it means something. A small freedom. A scrap of dignity in the chaos.
My mind drifts back to Mandela as we slowly head off in the Landie. He was also hunted by big men with rifles. He survived that battle. This creature was not so lucky.

And then I realise something – we’re telling the wrong story. This is not about the staggering death toll, or the hunt for the bad guys. We’ve seen the stats, we’ve heard the soundbites. We know the rhino is on the brink of extinction. But for most people, the problem is out there, in the bush. And really, it’s in here, in us.

This is about us as South Africans. Our failings and our weaknesses. Our strength and our spirit. Madiba would want us to tell that story. Madiba would want us to fight that struggle. DM


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