We beat conventional wisdom with a stick
21 January 2017 01:58 (South Africa)
Opinionista Alex Eliseev

The real brutality of Nkandla

  • Alex Eliseev
    AlexEliseev
    Alex Eliseev

    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. 

As police minister Nathi Nhleko continued his ridiculous attempts to justify not only the Nkandla spending but his whitewashed report into it, South Africans were introduced to a Soweto man named Bongani Mazibuko.

While the politician who is prone to excessive sweating sweated over the details – the upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s private home cost R216-million, not R246-million, he claimed, not for the first time – Bongani was mourning the death of his father Bheki, whose face stared back at him from the pages of newspapers and websites.

Bongani Mazibuko apparently didn’t have the R20 a hospital was demanding to treat his father, a pensioner suffering chest pains and battling to breathe.

The R20 was needed to open a hospital file and have the elderly patient admitted.

Bongani said he was R5 short and ran outside the hospital to beg for the balance, asking nearby vendors and taxi drivers to help him. He bombed out and came back empty handed, and watched as another patient offered his father an oxygen mask. Eventually, the son found the extra cash and paid the hospital, but his father was already dead.

R20.

Not even a pack of cigarettes.

A bit of airtime.

A burger from McDonald’s.

A taxi trip or two.

A stupid number if you consider the power it wields. On Bongani’s version, the possible difference between life and death.

The Gauteng Health Department denies that Bheki Mazibuko was turned away because of the R20. Its story is that he was seen by a doctor, resuscitated but declared dead shortly before 8pm last week Thursday.

It’s hard to imagine why Bongani would make up such an intricate story about running around outside the Mlangeni District Hospital trying to scrape together R5. Wherever the truth lies, the power of his story is to pull our eyes towards the daily reality that millions of South Africans face. To slice through the waves of tragedy to a single case that says everything.

Perhaps if Nhleko were not drawing on his flip chart and doing some cunning mathematics on the same day, the story of Bongani and his dad would have lost some of its force. It would have drawn sympathy, but it may have been swept up in the flood of news. But Nhleko had his PowerPoint presentation ready and was showing his audience photographs of Nelson Mandela’s swimming pool/firepool, saying: “Aha, you see!”

Nhleko was also reportedly taking digs at Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and daring anyone out there to prove his report wrong (which the Constitutional Court will probably do in due course). The minister also claimed that because of the intense scrutiny which Nkandla has been subjected to, Zuma and his family are now even more vulnerable. Which means, of course, more money will be spent to re-evaluate security and to beef it up. Again.

Its obscene to think that a police minister (who has much more important issues to deal with) was spending his day trying to justify how a quarter of a billion rand was spent on the home of a single individual, while Bongani was telling reporters that he didn’t have the remaining R5 he needed to save his father.

The two worlds seem divided by some cosmic chasm, a canyon so wide and so deep that cries of outrage disappear in it like whispers, swallowed up by the dark nothingness, carried away without an echo. It’s a grotesque comparison. A sick joke. At Nkandla, R5 probably wouldn’t have paid for a single brick.

Until those in power begin to truly wrestle with this imbalance, this hideous inequality, South Africa is doomed to make the same mistakes seen across the globe. Until the collapse of public hospitals becomes more important than attacking the judiciary (by launching pointless court appeals), people like Bheki Mazibuko will continue to die. Until the state of education muscles its way ahead of some AU summit or high-profile wedding, real change will remain elusive.

Bongani Mazibuko forces us to pause and come up for air, rising above the never-ending scandals. He pushes us to reflect on how important the basics are: jobs, electricity, clinics and schools. To think about the fact that Nhleko’s time would be better spent trying to resolve the crisis in the police, which has led to a spike in crime. And about how out of touch with reality some powerful men and women have become, while others remain quiet.

A powerful critique of the Marikana report was published in the Business Day on the same day that Nhleko spoke and Bongani mourned. The headline summed it up: “The callous silencing of suffering”. The author, academic Julian Brown, argued that the Farlam Commission dismally failed the miners and their families. By spending its time defending Nkandla, the government has failed the Mazibuko family, and countless others who suffer in silence. A callous and cruel silence. DM

Alex Eliseev is an Eyewitness News reporter. Follow him at @alexeliseev

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  • Alex Eliseev
    AlexEliseev
    Alex Eliseev

    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. 

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