Our Darkest Hour


5 July 2020

‘Naked man’s’ experience an indictment on all of us

It is comically dichotomous how we, the descendents of the great men and women who bequeathed us our democratic order, are capable of exalting high ideals and, at the same time, live out our darkest realities.

As a country, we possess the distinct ability to celebrate one thing and show off our cruelty in ways that leave many in the globe paralysed with disbelief. We profess our belief in the unity of African people, yet the inhumanity visited on African foreigners beggars
belief. We even coin demeaning names not worthy of repetition here.

We become effusive when we talk about unemployment in our country, yet we are the last to support Brand SA’s call to buy local. Just think too about how we celebrate German cars and German engineering in spite of local efforts.

The clothes we wear, yes, including the cheap T-shirts and fake Versace and
Gucci from China, are hardly local brands. There is a disturbing trend among us to speak with pride about Hugo Boss, Armani, Fabiani, Boticelli … wait, as an African, read that list again – Boticelli, Gucci, Prada, Burberry, Michael Kors, Chanel – nothing African.

The consideration seems to be that if the brand is foreign and expensive, it certainly must be worthy of celebration. It is, in fact, quite twisted that we celebrate paying more for clothes, cars and things that send the false impression to our neighbours that we are more successful than we actually are.

“Er, chief, this is not cheap,” they say, as if respect is due to them on the basis of their conspicuous consumption.

The point is an ability to pay more represents some veneer of success. And our authorities, sadly, seem to treat those who pay more with undue respect. For example, if water or electricity is cut off in Morningside, Joburg there will be a “national outcry” than when there is no water in Seshego or Gomora.

If you go to a public hospital, like Shonisani Lethole, you can spend 48 hours without food and die. Your inability to pay more to expensive medical aid schemes will kill you. Yet we talk about universal access to health. Yet, Dr Zwelini Mkhize, our health minister, is celebrated for an overall good performance in the management of COVID-19 outbreak.

Yeah, well done – but try to say that to Lethole’s family. The pain runs deep. Our hospitals can heal you or kill you in the most inhumane manner. Remember the 76-year-old woman, Martha Marais, who was chained to a bench at Mamelodi Hospital? The pain, for the Marais and Letholes, runs very deep.

Just how does one spend even eight hours, let alone 48 hours, without food at a hospital? The assumption is that your body is already compromised, under siege, and this is why you need medical assistance. Yet, the Lethole family must overcome the disbelief.

The point is that our celebrated health system, while capable of the highest
excellence, is also very able to unleash devastating neglect and murderous
behaviour. Out of a good space, we unleash very dark, haunting experiences.

One of the incidents that haunted me this week was the attempted emasculation of Bulelani Qholani of Khayelitsha, dubbed The Naked Man by some media. He stayed in a corrugated iron shack whose walls were brought down while, he says, he was bathing.

They pulled him out, he pushed back, not fighting, just simply trying to go back into his shack. As soon as he succeeded, the roof and everything else was removed.

He was powerless. He could mount no meaningful challenge against the army of people brought in by the City of Cape Town to evict him and others.  Elsewhere in Joburg, mayor Geoff Makhubo was showing what it means to be a mayor – rushing to help fire victims, providing temporary shelter.

But the Western Cape Premier Alan Winde believes Qholani’s nakedness was a form of protest. He was not the first nor the last, Winde says. So what, Winde? Does it matter that you are number 14 or 77 000 in a dehumanising, soul-crushing protest?

In any case, we know protest when we see it. Women in Protea, Soweto, would flash their boobs and blockade the N12 in protest. Those who protest don’t run away into their shacks, like Qholani. They come forth. They, unlike Qholani, seek the cameras’ attention. In the aftermath, they feel victorious, not crushed.

And even if it was his way of protest, what level of depravity would a human being have to be subjected to for him to feel it’s okay to take off his clothes and let his “privates” be paraded for the world to see?

The arbitrary use of brute force by the state and so callous a response by Winde against a human being so poor and helpless must pull at our heartstrings. No one with an option can choose to push and be shoved around naked like Qholani. Or suffer like Lethole in a hospital without food for 48 hours.

While to the world we are the epitome of democracy, we, at the same time, subject the poor among us to grave inhumanity.

It is an indictment on all of us, especially those who wear real and fake expensive foreign labels that don’t contribute to job creation so the poor can get jobs and afford medical aid and proper houses so they don’t have to be naked in protest.




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