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Can we not share more and hate less? The dangers of ‘normal’ and ‘temporary discomfort’

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Vanessa Burger is an independent community activist for human rights and social justice.

What is ‘more normal’ about anything in South Africa? What is ubuntu and how can it be applied so apparently carelessly when deadly vigilantism is on the rise; ethnic, racial, class and all sorts of other divisions have been refreshed, reloaded and rebooted; and where is the ‘magic’ in the structural violence of poverty, unemployment and a predatory, kleptocratic, indifferent state?

In September 2019, Vusi Ngema (not his real name) was shot in the face, arm and chest after becoming involved in an altercation with an off-duty, plainclothes police officer at a tavern in Umlazi. His cousin was shot dead during the same incident. Enraged tavern patrons disarmed the officer, beat him up and later handed him over to police when they arrived at the scene some time later. The officer was taken to hospital and placed under police guard. The matter was referred to the Independent Policing Investigative Directorate (Ipid) for investigation.

Shortly afterwards the officer was discharged and transferred to Isipingo police station where he was much closer to where Ngema remained in hospital, unable to speak because a section of his jaw and teeth had been blown away, and unable to move because a bullet had broken his arm while a fourth was lodged in his chest. About a week after the incident an unknown police officer arrived at Ngema’s bedside, took photos of him, then left without saying a word. But Ngema was not provided with a police guard while in hospital despite the sinister incident having been reported to the SAPS and Ipid at the time. His family feared for his life.

Ngema’s cousin, who was shot dead next to him, was buried on Heritage Day. 

When Ngema was eventually discharged some months later, he found that the officer had a relative living nearby and he would often pass the cop on the street. Sometimes he would greet Ngema. Ngema told of the distress it caused him that his cousin’s killer was seemingly enjoying life while he was now semi-disabled and living in constant fear of reprisal. The officer remained on duty. Ngema’s efforts to find permanent work were further constrained by his new disability. He had two children to feed and was now entirely reliant on his brother who worked part-time as a security guard.

According to Ngema’s family, the Ipid investigator informed them the officer could not be arrested or suspended because “he is only a suspect”, the charges “are not yet proven”. But reliable sources claimed that more than a dozen spent 9mm cartridges were recovered from the scene — all state-issue.

The Ipid investigation dragged on, and on, and on.

Ngema, around 25 years old at the time of the incident, was angry. Bitterly angry, he often fell into a deep black hole of depression. He said he felt his life had been taken away from him. He had no future, no hope that things would get better. He worried about his kids whom he couldn’t provide for. He said he felt inadequate as a father although he just used the word “failed”. In his WhatsApp profile picture, he always turned his face from the camera, presumably to hide his injuries. He said he struggled to eat with so many teeth missing and battled to do simple things for himself with only one fully functional arm. He said there were other health issues.

Ngema had to make regular visits to the hospital for check-ups and follow-up surgery. Sometimes his brother couldn’t afford to give him transport money so he missed or delayed some of the medical treatment he needed. Ngema said he didn’t like to keep asking his brother for money; he had his own problems and family to support. So Ngema received little physiotherapy and no psycho-emotional support. Many attempts to obtain trauma counselling proved fruitless — there are not nearly enough social workers in Umlazi and non-profit support organisations were unaffordably distant. Ngema gave up trying.

Ngema’s attempts to obtain a disability grant were a similar source of frustration. He was told the hospital had lost his records and each time he saw a different doctor he was given different instructions, different excuses. The corporate world often complains about the government’s lengthy red tape, but for poor people, the state’s bureaucratic dysfunction can become an insurmountable hurdle, sometimes even life-threatening.   

Do the Ngemas of our society — those partially rotting John Does lying hidden and unclaimed under a pile of corpses in our dysfunctional mortuaries — really need “forgiveness”? And whose place is it to forgive?

The Ipid investigation still dragged on.

At 2pm on Monday, 12 July, as KZN contorted in spasms of social unrest and violence, Ngema went with friends to Isipingo.

“I won’t lie,” said his brother, “he went to loot.”

“Just as they approached a cellphone shop, people started shooting. We don’t know if it was the police or the community. One guy who was with Ngema ran… then after that he did not see Ngema.

“We weren’t that worried when he didn’t come home that night because of all that was going on. But he never came back,” said his brother.

In Isipingo it was reported that several businesses, a medical centre, retail stores, restaurants and fuel stations were attacked, vandalised and looted. A few days later the local food market was set alight.  

“We went to all the hospitals but his name is not on any register. They wouldn’t let us check in the wards because of Covid. He may also have registered under a false name, so we just don’t know.

“We reported it at Isipingo police station and we have a case number. The officer told us that he picked up five bodies that night and took them to Park Rynie mortuary, so we went there. The mortuary told us we must come back in a week because they have so many bodies piled on top of each other at the moment that they can’t be identified properly yet. So we must find means to go there again next week. We’ve also heard there is another mortuary at Phoenix so we will try to get there too.”

The Department of Health recently reported that there were 35 unidentified bodies at the Phoenix mortuary and called on families with missing relatives to come to identify and claim the remains.

On 21 July a former community leader at Glebelands Hostel, where nearby Mega City shopping mall and Jinah’s Store were plundered, then almost razed to the ground, reported: “We had special guests yesterday in the morning — soldiers and police. They are on a campaign of Operation Produce A Slip. They had a truck which is normally used to transport prisoners to court and another one allocated to load stolen properties.

“It’s a pity,” continued the former leader, “that our police never show the same dedication to recover money stolen by politicians and businesspeople. Maybe if they had, more people wouldn’t need to steal food, fridges and things they can resell later to get money. It seems looting that is done by poor people is wrong, but looting done by government officials and businesspeople is okay, there is no Operation Produce A Slip. People are now restless.”  

The National Prosecuting Authority recently confirmed that almost 2,000 people have been arrested for “unrest and related charges”. The KZN provincial government reported that some 200,000 jobs have been shed over the past week due to the destruction of local businesses and infrastructure that has cost the province an estimated R20-billion. It is all but impossible to find work with a criminal record.

When testifying recently before the Zondo Commission, Paul Holden of Shadow World Investigations reported that almost R50-billion had been lost to State Capture, although the true cost to the state Holden warned, “is definitely higher”.

A friend whose 84-year-old mother had been home alone and terrified during much of the looting in one of Durban’s middle-class suburbs and had been protected by neighbours, said that they had celebrated her birthday yesterday and “spoilt her rotten”.

“It was so nice to have tea with family again and get back to a more normal life,” she confided.

In a recent social media posting after the worst of the violence had subsided, a Durban resident wrote: “There are no words to describe the magic that is amongst our motherland right now. The magic of its people rising together… a new dawn! An incredible sense of unity and pride!”

The post continued, “…We have shredded the layer of fear that we have carried around for so long — the fear of ‘what will be when they come?’ ‘They’, being the SMALL group of evil individuals that have tried so hard to tear us apart by lying and brainwashing the people of our land.

“So I am going to thank and forgive the small group of evil individuals that plotted this strategic move to try to bring South Africa to its knees… Ubuntu is alive and well and thriving…”.

And after exhorting readers to continue “reaching out” and “helping where you can during this time of need for supplies”, ended off, “Take peace in knowing too this is a temporary discomfort — there are amazing individuals and companies that are putting plans in place to resolve our supply problem quickly. Keep in mind we do not have a food shortage problem in South Africa. We simply have a logistical issue at the moment”.

What is “more normal” about anything in South Africa? Where sanity threatens to plunge through the seemingly ever-widening void between these lived experiences. What is “ubuntu” and how can it be applied so apparently carelessly when deadly vigilantism is on the rise in many communities; ethnic, racial, class and all sorts of other divisions have been refreshed, reloaded and rebooted; and where is the “magic” in the structural violence of poverty, unemployment and a predatory, kleptocratic, indifferent state that robs the majority and their offspring of any hope for a future?

Do the Ngemas of our society — those partially rotting John Does lying hidden and unclaimed under a pile of corpses in our dysfunctional mortuaries — really need “forgiveness”? And whose place is it to forgive? Do Ngema’s family and Glebelands communities and the millions of poor, frustrated, angry, starving people everywhere across this godforsaken country know their eternal misery is “a temporary discomfort”, a “logistical” glitch for some?

Can we not share more and hate less? Can we not be a little less selfish and a bit more perceptive? Have we learnt nothing in the past 27 years? Do we really believe we can continue as “normal”, and if so, for how long? DM

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