Writing about police brutality in contemporary South Africa feels like screaming into a forest of echoes. But allow me to howl at the trees because what happened to Goodman Nono, a blind busker in Cape Town, is nothing short of a crime against our humanity. It is the ultimate tale of Goliath crushing David, for no other reason than because he can.
An invisible hand squeezes my heart. I’ve felt it all day, since the moment I opened the newspapers and read the story of Goodman Nono. I don’t know what affected me more: the video clip I found of the blind musician being dragged across a busy market by a bunch of policemen; the desperate cries of his wife; or the image of his guitar being broken. I think it was the guitar.
Nono begs for money by singing at Cape Town’s Greenmarket Square. He has done so for around five years, according to reports. He sits on an empty plastic beer crate, with his belongings neatly folded as a cushion. In front of him is another crate, on top of which is a small metal box for coins, locked and chained to make sure no one steals it. Nono has two small cardboard signs stuck to the back of his guitar advertising his CDs, which he sells for R80.
“I’m blind. Somebody help me please. Thank you.”
Nono sings to support himself and his wife Abigail. He may have children, but there is no reference to them in any of the articles. He is described as the square’s “famed left-handed guitarist” – a regular who holds his guitar vertically, singing into it, through it, as he strums.
On Monday, five or six Metro Police officers dragged him away and locked him up for playing longer than the bylaws allowed. He may have resisted. His wife may have caused a fuss. But what unfolded can never be excused, no matter how provoked the officers felt.
Nono was pushed, shoved and dragged. He fell to his knees and was pulled back to his feet. The neck of his guitar was snapped. His arrest caused such a commotion that people began filming it on their cellphones and taking photographs. Those who witnessed it were disgusted and outraged.
“They dragged me on the ground and tore my clothes,” Nono is quoted saying later. “That hurt me. It broke my heart.”
Close your eyes for a moment. Let the darkness set in. Wait for all the shapes and flares to disappear. Now imagine what it must have felt like to hear the angry voices of the policemen barking orders. To try and negotiate with them without knowing how many surround you. To not see their faces and to have no way of identifying them later. Then, to hear the sound of your treasured instrument snapping, once it’s been wrestled away from your hands. To be dragged away into the unknown. To hear your wife screaming nearby. To be lost in that deafening panic. To not understand why you are being arrested … you have the permit that’s supposed to protect you. To have no idea where you are being taken or what will happen once you get there. To be shoved in the back of a police van and to hear the locks snap shut. To be completely helpless with only your voice as a weapon. To go through all that and then, eventually, be set free with a R1,500 fine and a crushed spirit.
One could argue that Nono’s ordeal is insignificant when compared to what happened to Andries Tatane, who was killed during a service delivery protest, or Mido Macia, who was handcuffed to a police van and dragged across town, dying later in police custody. Nono’s story also had a relatively happy ending, with him receiving a new guitar from a Good Samaritan and charges being laid against the officers. There is even talk of a protest.
But there is something so deeply wrong with our society if police officers, who wield untold power over someone like Nono, feel the need to unleash it on a blind busker. To break his guitar, his livelihood, for no reason. To damage. To destroy.
I may be over-reacting, but if I close my eyes I can still see the images that emerged from the Marikana bloodshed. I still remember how I felt seeing the system rise up to crush resistance. The situation there was infinitely more complex and the truth is only now starting to emerge. But in Nono’s case it was simple: no matter how much of a nuisance he was, he should never have been degraded, beaten or locked up for singing past a curfew. It is a minor offence that warrants a warning or the fine he received. He suffered only because of his social standing because the underclass is easier to torment, with less risk.
Cast your mind back to those paramedics who left a homeless man to die because he was dirty. Or the stream of illegal immigrants arrested on a daily basis and sent to Lindela. Or that cop in the Free State kicking an unarmed woman.
Nono’s case was caught on camera and broke many hearts, not just his. But how many are never reported?
Nono is now scared to return to his regular spot. He probably will because he has little choice. But surely there is something broken inside him now. Something that can never be repaired, thanks to the stupid and senseless actions of those far stronger than him. There’s a lesson here for an entire nation. There are only so many pieces that can break inside us all. DM
Dubbed a "troublemaker" for his investigative work, Alex Eliseev is also an award-winning hard news journalist who has reported from Haiti, Japan and Libya. Currently an Eyewitness News reporter, he's worked for South Africa's top newspapers, including The Star and Sunday Times. To quench the thirst of his soul, he writes human-interest features. He also collects shirts with birds on them.
"I know of a cure for everything: salt water...in one way or the other. Sweat or tears or the salt sea." ~ Karen Blixen