Opinionista Judith February 3 July 2020

South Africa, where shame is a rare commodity

The Covid-19 pandemic provides even more time to reflect on the sort of society we have become even as the ineptitude of the state has been laid bare throughout this period.

Last week, as we listened to Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni’s Budget, we heard just how much poorer we had become and that tough economic times await us.

Something will have to give. Mostly it will be the poor who will suffer more as there is simply no money to meet the housing, education and healthcare burdens on the state. We know too that the deep levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality cause levels of depravity which we have become virtually inured to.

We also hear National Director of Public Prosecutions, Shamila Batohi, warn that we need to have a serious conversation about combating corruption. “Are we winning this battle? At this point I can say we are not winning. I think we have to be candid about this,” Batohi told Parliament this week.

In 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa estimated that South Africa had lost close to a trillion rand to corruption. In February, he mentioned that Eskom and Transnet have recovered R2.3-billion lost through corruption. Yet, the major players in the State Capture drama walk free as the Zondo Commission rumbles on in the background. Meanwhile, the economic devastation continues apace. We have lost billions intended for the poor. Batohi is right – we are not doing enough and we are not winning the battle. The ANC itself this week decided to lift the suspension on ANC Limpopo Treasurer Danny Msiza and former Vhembe municipality mayor, Florence Radzilani. They were initially suspended from the party for corruption related to the VBS Bank scandal.

But we know the ANC protects its own and its Secretary-General, Ace Magashule, is hardly a man with an ethical compass.

The pattern is clear: billions stolen across the country, represents money that will never reach the poor.

During lockdown we saw many other things which told us who and what we have become; men and women in townships made to do push-ups while SANDF soldiers looked on gleefully.

We saw the same soldiers sjambokking men and women in downtown Johannesburg, again for allegedly breaching lockdown rules.

We heard of Collins Khosa’s death at the hands of the SANDF and SAPS. We do not grieve enough in this country that moves on rapidly from one painful episode to the next.

We lost a bit of ourselves during lockdown, diminished by the brutality of the police and the depravity of the hungry and hollow-eyed as they stood (and still stand) in food queues.

And then a video surfaces showing a man being dragged out of his shack in Khayelitsha by Cape law enforcement while bathing himself. In a bath? Probably not. Informal settlements do not lend themselves to niceties, only rudimentary lavation.

We witness the naked man – we see him from behind – a little of his dignity spared, as he wrestles with the anti-land invasion unit. He is tossed to the ground. For good measure his shack is ripped down.

There is nothing new about this scene in the “new” South Africa but somehow the indignity visited upon this man, in a state of undress, seemed to shame us all.

The video quickly went viral and Executive Mayor Dan Plato issued a statement saying, “This is not the type of conduct we tolerate in this city..” He went on to say the officers were suspended and that “Mr Qholani’s dignity was impaired…”

Bulelani Qholani’s dignity was impaired long before he was dragged naked out of his shack and long before his shack was ripped down. It was impaired when Plato, surely one of our most insipid mayors, and his colleagues decided to implement a 6.5% salary increase. This represents the upper limit for remuneration of elected municipal officials as gazetted by Cogta minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma in April. Proposals for a trimmed Covid budget were rejected.

The City of Cape Town is well known for its brutality and mostly ill-conceived plans to deal with those who occupy land. The homeless have been levied with fines for sleeping rough, another of JP Smith’s pointless interventions.

And of course Mr Qholani’s dignity was impaired long before the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, Lindiwe Sisulu, arrived in Khayelitsha during lockdown, pink gloves and bejewelled ring in place. Sisulu has called for the Western Cape government to “get to the bottom of the incident…”

This week Mr Qholani stands for all those brutalised in the name of law and order, to use the Nixonian (or now, Trumpian) phrase. He also stands for all the victims of a state mired in corruption and which has lost its way, unable to care for the most vulnerable in its midst.

While shame is a rare commodity in South African politics, we can only feel collective shame at who we have become and at the kind of society which drags a bathing man, a father of two, out of his makeshift home.

Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. DM

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