It has become almost easy to throw around numbers — the 27.2% (narrow) unemployment rate, 52% youth unemployment and rampant crime.
Yet poverty, if we didn’t know it already, has a face. It is the face of Michael Komape who drowned in his own faeces in a pit latrine toilet at his school. It is the face of the many others we know will tragically have the same fate as Michael.
This is a country that can break our hearts into a million pieces.
The palpable violence of poverty and exclusion is a near-routine experience for our country’s most vulnerable citizens. The death of five-year-old Michael in 2014 and the Life Esidimeni tragedy, which saw more than 100 people die after the Gauteng Health Department moved them from existing care facilities to others run by NGOs, stand out as the most brutal examples of the neglect of the Zuma years, alongside the Marikana massacre of mineworkers by police in 2012.
As Michael’s father James Komape said in his testimony to the Limpopo High Court in the civil matter:
“They [the state] should have helped. My son was going to school. I did not send him to die.”
What kind of state tries to defend itself in the face of the death of a vulnerable child?
Michael’s story made the news. Millions of nameless and faceless South Africans facing the daily grind of poverty do not warrant a headline or a semblance of outrage. It is simply how things are for many who live in desperate circumstances.
Thando *1 lives in an informal structure in Philippi, Cape Town. A bright child, he excelled at school. His circumstances, however, compelled him to perhaps temper his dreams of university and apply instead to the local technikon. There was little in the way of guidance and even less in the way of the choices which having money may have provided him with. And so he registered for the National Diploma in Engineering and thanks to a benefactor who interceded for him, he secured a bursary from a local housing company.
Thando manages to complete his diploma in the required time. This he does despite his bout of tuberculosis while writing his matric exams and despite not having electricity in his makeshift room in the place he calls home. He has also been robbed while walking to public transport that must get him to technikon each day. The laptop he was given was stolen on that day. He has to keep his guard up. His clothes are given to him via his benefactor and the kindness of strangers. On graduation day his mother makes the trip from the Eastern Cape, proud of her son, the educated one, “the good boy” as she calls him.
Thando has other dreams of course, perhaps of moving out of Philippi into a safer area. But he has to constrain them. He knows that. His most important task is to graduate and then earn money to support his family. That burden will fall on his young shoulders. Yet Thando also knows he is one of the lucky ones, being educated and able to attend the Technikon. Despite the need for skills, he finds that there are no jobs for someone like him no matter how hard he tries. He benefited from an internship for a year, but doors remain closed.
Not for Thando the networks created by inter-generational wealth and connections when he can barely scrape together the cash to attend an interview, let alone dress for one. There is no ready access to the internet and life continues to be lived on the margins and dependent on the kindness of strangers. It is this kindness that finds him in an administrative job and the small mercy of a salary.
Terrible chest pains and a loss of appetite have compounded Thando’s recent challenges. Without access to proper health care, he is like millions of others consigned to dependence on the state. For fear that he had contracted tuberculosis yet again, he presents at the local clinic. He is clear of TB but the pain remains. No follow-up X-ray is allowed. Our state, despite the billions looted, cannot afford to provide this service to Thando for a second time. And so the worry sets in.
The kindness of strangers again ensures that he is taken to a doctor in the suburbs and has an X-ray. Thando cannot quite fathom that he is able to simply walk in and within 20 minutes his X-ray has been completed and by the end of that day he has a diagnosis. For the poor waiting is part of life, where the middle classes buy their way out of waiting and most interactions with the state except the most necessary.
His pain arises out of the lung damage he has sustained during his bout of TB. And so Thando, again like millions of others carries the unseen weight each day as he battles work in pain.
On weekends Thando says he “walks along the R300” for some exercise otherwise he is at home. The burden of poverty does not seem to allow for the joys of life. There is neither money nor space for idle pursuits. Thando’s overwhelming concern is to retain his job and not to let his mother down.
His gaze is not firm — he does not have the confidence that a good education with bells and whistles gives. His slight frame is another visual reminder of that deprivation of the soul.
One wonders then whether the politicians making so many promises have ways of seeing what Thando and others endure daily? As they sashay into poverty-stricken areas where hope is often in short supply and as they come with plans for a better world, do they truly see?
Phendukani Silwani died after a brush with our health care system — inadequate and often callous if one is poor. While many doctors bravely manage to work within a broken system — and we owe them a debt of gratitude for not giving up — health care is often a lottery for the poor, especially in rural areas. Karen Press in her beautiful poem, for Silwani, reminds us of the dreams that come in childhood, the joys which are mostly unfulfilled when one is poor and no-one cares and when one’s parents do not have the voice and agency which comes so easily and so effortlessly to the middle class.
Let Phendukani Silwani stand for all Departments of Health, all out-patient queues and closed wards and unbought drugs and spent doctors.
Let Phendukani Silwani stand for all Departments of Education, all unbuilt schools and untrained teachers and stolen food and books bearing false witness.
Let Phendukani Silwani stand for all Departments of Housing, all cracked walls and broken pipes and poisoned streets and lost gardens.
Let Phendukani Silwani stand for all parents with emptied arms and bent heads whose tears hang like silver nooses in the air.
Let him stand for all children, all parcels of carbon and light who come only once, and vanish forever.
Let Phendukani Silwani stand for himself only, only he existed in his small body, only he was there, looking out at us, at the tall grass that hid him, at the unreachable blue sky.
Thank you for the paracetamol.
Thank you for the social grant.
Thando will not die, for ironically he is one of the privileged few who has a job in South Africa.
But let him stand for the government, which has let him and so many others down — a government which has consigned him to a burdensome and joyless life from a tender age.
Let him stand too for those who battle a feckless bureaucracy day after day and for whom the upcoming election means very little.
Let them all stand. DM
1* Not his real name