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Opinionista

Joburg fire tragedy highlights so much of what is wrong in South Africa

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Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

Johannesburg and most of South Africa’s inner cities have become infested with rot. They speak of death, not life; they tell of an aloof and uncaring government.

City Johannesburg
Mongane Wally Serote

This way I salute you:
My hand pulses to my back trousers pocket
Or into my inner jacket pocket
For my pass, my life,
Jo’burg City.
My hand like a starved snake rears my pockets
For my thin, ever lean wallet,
While my stomach groans a friendly smile to
hunger,
Jo’burg City.
My stomach also devours coppers and papers
Don’t you know?
Jo’burg City, I salute you:
When I run out, or roar in a bus to you,
I leave behind me, my love,
My comic houses and people, my dongas and
my ever whirling dust,
My death
That’s so related to me as a wink to the eye.
Jo’burg City
I travel on your black and white and roboted
roads
Through your thick iron breath that you inhale
At six in the morning and exhale from five
noon.
Wild Card City is the best place for fun.
That is the time when I come to you,
When your neon flowers flaunt from your
electrical wind,
That is the time when I leave you,
When your neon flowers flaunt their way
through the
falling darkness
On your cement trees.
And as I go back, to my love,
My dongas, my dust, my people, my death,
Where death lurks in the dark like a blade in
the flesh,
I can feel your roots, anchoring your might,
my feebleness
In my flesh, in my mind, in my blood,
And everything about you says it,
That, that is all you need of me.
Jo’burg City, Johannesburg,
Listen when I tell you,
There is no fun, nothing, in it,
When you leave the women and men with such
frozen expressions,
Expressions that have tears like furrows of soil
erosion,
Jo’burg City, you are dry like death,
Jo’burg City, Johannesburg, Jo’burg City. 

Mongane Wally Serote wrote City Johannesburg in around 1971. It was a very different time, but today many would still salute the city in irony.

The billboard that used to greet one at OR Tambo Airport, “Joburg: a world-class African city”, was equally ironic, even in democratic South Africa (surely the marketing gurus who came up with the slogan could see that?). No one carries a pass any longer, but Johannesburg and most of South Africa’s inner cities have become infested with rot. They speak of death, not life.

And so in August 2023, when more than 70 people died in a building on Albert Street, Johannesburg, it highlights so much of what is wrong in South Africa at present. The blaze made international headlines for days. International readers may have asked how this came to pass, but for South Africans, ghastly tragedy is an everyday feature of life. Recently a gas explosion on Lilian Ngoyi Street, Johannesburg, was greeted with what felt like little more than a shrug from those in power.

Poor governance across South Africa is a sad inevitability, more so in Johannesburg given the opportunistic coalition government now in power. Kabelo Gwamanda of the minuscule Al Jama-ah party was cynically installed as executive mayor earlier this year. Nothing qualifies him to run a city so large and so complex. He is the city’s ninth mayor since 2016 and who knows how long he will last in this position given that he is currently the subject of a Financial Sector Conduct Authority investigation for allegedly running a Ponzi scheme.

Unconscionably, the ANC and the EFF have propped him up without any care for the wellbeing of citizens. His opposite number in the province, Premier Panyaza Lesufi, is equally vacuous. Lesufi has the knack of arriving on the scene of any tragedy just in time to make a usually unhelpful statement in the full glare of the media. He has announced a commission of inquiry into the fire. Hopefully, that inquiry is speedily concluded and its recommendations, which one must presume will be useful, implemented.

Blame-shifting and arrogance

One would have imagined that the Albert Street tragedy would be a cue for national government ministers to enter the fray meaningfully and with compassion. But, what we heard was blame-shifting.

Minister of Social Development Lindiwe Zulu, in a hat that can only be described as a milliner’s nightmare, stood outside the smouldering building and declared it apartheid’s fault. Her exact words were: “Whether we like it or not, this is the result of apartheid, and we are expected to have changed those conditions within the 30 years.”

But Zulu has a history of arrogance. During the Covid-19 lockdown, we watched as she climbed out of a police van and used a loudhailer to bark instructions at the most vulnerable in our society — for not social distancing. That was immediately followed by police spraying the crowd with water cannon. To be clear, the people being “addressed” had queued for hours waiting to renew their disability grants in person. Afterwards, Zulu, without any sense of irony, said: “This Lindiwe Zulu can never run away from the people, this must be understood.”

This is the same minister who took a shopping break in the middle of our hard lockdown in 2020 and plastered it all over social media. Was Zulu repentant then? No. She was quoted as saying: “You’ll be a minister one good day. If not, you’ll be responsible for somebody or something and you’ll be confronted with situations. Grow up!”

Last week, Zulu’s ministry, which is presiding over the disaster that is the SA Social Security Agency, left thousands of pensioners in the lurch and without money to pay for daily necessities. Zulu, like most of her Cabinet colleagues, met their plight with indifference. A press conference has been scheduled about what Zulu and the finance minister call a “technical glitch”.

This aloof and uncaring government has a name and a face. It is the face of Michael Komape who drowned in his own faeces in a pit toilet at his school. It is the face of the many others we know will tragically have the same fate as Michael. The death of five-year-old Michael in 2014 and the Life Esidimeni tragedy, in which more than 100 people died after the Gauteng Department of Health moved them from existing care facilities to others run by NGOs, stand out as the most brutal examples, 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 death?

Tragically, Zulu was not alone in her inadequate (the word itself is inadequate) response to the Albert Street fire. She was followed by Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni shooting her mouth off, saying: “The majority of the people who stay or reside in hijacked buildings are not South African and they are not in this country legally. The government cannot provide housing to illegal immigrants.” Is it the position of the government that foreigners should be allowed to die?

Ramaphosa’s empty words

And so this back-and-forth continued with no wisdom to be found anywhere. Adding fuel to the fire were City of Johannesburg Transport MMC Kenny Kunene and Speaker Colleen Makhubele, both echoing anti-immigrant sentiment and blaming NGOs for the disaster.

At the head of all this mayhem is President Cyril Ramaphosa, a leader so disappointing that he can only find solace in his corrupt party. He said meekly: “We are not here to blame anyone. This incident calls on all of us, from the emergency services and other entities of government to community-based organisations, to reach out to survivors to help restore people’s physical and psychological wellbeing, and to offer all material help residents may need.”

We have had enough experience of Ramaphosa to understand the emptiness of this visit and these words. There is no will, interest or commitment to solve anything any more.

All that is left are platitudes alongside the shamelessness and the real and present danger of a defensive government. According to Ntshavheni and others, NGOs are, after all, to blame for the state of hijacked buildings in our cities, foreigners are to blame, apartheid is to blame — everyone except the governing ANC which has presided over large-scale corruption and ineptitude locally and nationally.

So when Ramaphosa’s Cabinet approves the draft General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill (Gilab) which amends the powers and mandate of South Africa’s state intelligence services, we should be aware that it has sparked serious concerns about the potential impact on civic participation, lack of protection from mass surveillance, and lack of provision for improved oversight and accountability of the intelligence services. 

Along with this comes the danger of an insecure state clamping down on dissent and on those who would challenge the government for the breach of its constitutional obligations. In the hands of an unaccountable government, this legislation could be an even more dangerous weapon.

Ramaphosa was one of very few leaders who attended Emmerson Mnangagwa’s inauguration in Zimbabwe even as lawyers Douglas Coltart and Tapiwa Muchineripi were arrested and brutalised, and as serious allegations of electoral fraud were being made.

We therefore need to draw a straight line between the shifting of blame for fires, gas explosions and derelict governance, Gilab and Ramaphosa’s cosying up to Mnangagwa. And we need to sharpen the tools in the democratic toolkit. 

This defensive and callous government cannot be trusted with our wellbeing or our rights. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    The arrogance of Zulu and her colleagues is disgusting. Let’s never forget that people have lost their lives fighting apartheid and that is what we got. Are there any ministers and top officials who shouldn’t be in jail?

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