Opinionista Greg Nicolson 25 November 2013

Nkandla photos: Breaking rules to break them

Nkandla isn't about adolescent struggles of brown shoes, petty drug dealers or fried eggs. It's both a real and symbolic example of corruption and the abuse of authority. Tell us not to publish pictures of Nkandla and we'll publish pictures of Nkandla. It's a great headline and an important story as we head to the 2014 elections.

My best friend called them the duck shoes. The brown leather turned sandy at the toes; the stitching joining the sole was yellow. They were hardly fashionable – standard lace-ups that flared like a duck’s webbed feet. But they were brown and that was what mattered.

My high school’s North Korean uniform policy allowed for black leather shoes only. For years I conformed until I lied to my dad, convincing him that a pair of brown shoes would pass inspection. So I started grade 10 an unfashionable rebel without a cause, ready to live and die (or at least get detention) for my ideals.

The crushing fist of totalitarian oppression was our deputy principal. He was an Irishman, Catholic, probably on some violent side of the IRA. Each time I was pulled into his office for an indiscretion, being an aloof observer to a fight over who spilt who’s Fanta or hurling torrid insults on the sidelines of the football field (“Number 19, your socks aren’t clean!”) he would stare straight and offer the penetrating advice – “Greg, stop being stupid.”

Of course, the deputy hated the brown shoes. We had five minutes to get between each class during the day. On one fateful occasion, which was my own if not my father’s reason for me to shift schools, he was on duty at the quadrangle. Our eyes met over the water feature. He looked at me, looked at my shoes. He started walking towards me, his eyes still on the brown leather of rebellion. He paced forwards, his beard furious with the contraband. I stepped back, almost tripping on a Coke bottle. I ran.

Down the corridors and through those toilets I never visited since someone smeared excrement on the walls, he pursued me. I fled to the gym. One more detention and my parents would be called. I’d have to come in on a Saturday and miss my crucial supermarket shift pushing trolleys on a Saturday. Doggedly, he circled the gym. I escaped through an emergency exit and ran towards the creek where we ran excruciating laps for cross-country training. Victorious, I sat behind a bush for an hour, for control, leaving the stool I was making in woodwork class idle and incomplete.

“Breaking the rules to break them,” a friend said this week. In her teens her mother had forbidden her from befriending the high-school’s drug dealer, a fantastic chap in all other regards, she says. She became friends with him simply to spite her strict parents.

The relationship developed until one afternoon when the dealer and his mates dropped her at home. Her mother, a domestic version of Radovan Krejcir, was approaching so the kids thought fast. The dealer jumped in the boot of the car while the rest of the friends were welcomed inside. Two hours later, they released him from his claustrophobic isolation. The plan was in vain. “You should just invite your friends into the house and we’ll face up to the bullshit you’ve caused together,” her mother said afterwards, not missing a beat.

We want what we can’t have. My girlfriend’s mother is a nurse who imposed strict dietary controls on her kids. No chappies, ama kip-kip, amashwam-shwam. Especially under no circumstances could they eat fried eggs. Eating breakfast at a friend’s house was glorious. She remembers the first time. Boiled eggs couldn’t compare. The sweet, sinning sensation as a seven-year-old girl eating fried eggs. She knew it was wrong – her mother had told her not to; but the taste was freedom. New, oily, amazing, and risky.

Of course the media would rebel when Ministers-with-a-lot-of-power Nathi Mthethwa and Siyabonga Cwele told them not to publish pictures of President Zuma’s R208 million gated community in Nkandla.

South African media has a history of rebellion. It’s like the smart kid in class who won’t do what he or she is told when the rules don’t seem to have any real legitimate foundation. “Because we told you so” is not good enough. Mthethwa and Cwele’s veiled threats weren’t based in law and the media knew it.

In the last few days, just about every media outlet in the country displayed pictures of Nkandla (to any buyers interested, I can also take a picture and know the taxi route to JZ’s kasi). The media were rebelling against the unjust use of authority. It doesn’t believe in the ministers’ interpretation of the National Key Points Act (let’s start by looking at why the Act was passed) and holds high its right to inform the public on issues of national importance.

Nkandla isn’t about adolescent struggles of brown shoes, petty drug dealers or fried eggs. It’s both a real and symbolic example of corruption and the abuse of authority. The media is threatened with the Protection of State Information Act and, according to the ministers, a visit from those who pull the state’s strings. But they set themselves up for this. Tell us not to publish pictures of Nkandla and we’ll publish pictures of Nkandla. It’s a great headline and an important story as we head to the 2014 elections. DM

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