OPINION: (Dis)Respectable war, disposable hero

Sometimes I am convinced that South Africans are either very wounded or extremely self-absorbed. Either way, there is cause for concern.

Take the widespread national reaction to the picture taken just outside the South Gauteng High Court last week. The picture, by photographer Alon Skuy, depicts radio and TV personality Gareth Cliff and his advocate Dali Mpofu leaving the court, while a man in the background digs through a rubbish skip.

To say the picture set tongues wagging would be an understatement of Nkandla proportions. While I agree it is a beautiful picture (artistically speaking), I was perturbed by the resultant banter.

Picture: Alon Skuy/Times Media Group.

A talk show host on 702 lamented that Mpofu and Cliff were oblivious to the poor man "and the world did not even know the man's name". What rubbish!

I mean, if in our daily lives we were followed by cameras (as it happened to Mpofu and Cliff on that particular day), it would reveal that we all live and participate in the apathetic society that is South Africa.

How many of us frantically roll up the window when a beggar, hawker or window cleaner approaches? How many of us give the shopping centre car guard a scaring and disapproving look?

How many of us ignore, on a daily basis, the kids walking kilometres to school while we leisurely drive alone in our luxury cars?

But because there is no camera catching us, we feel insulated. Because there are no cameras, we can go on with our self-absorbed lives, but quickly turn around and judge those on whom the cameras are always trained.

What did the haters expect Dali and Gareth do? And why should these gentlemen be expected to change the world all of us destroy with apathy every single day? Why do we find it so easy to be hypocrites as a nation?

I could not figure this out until I asked on my Facebook wall what all the fuss was about. And this comment by one of my 'friends' was revealing: "I guess I am one of the hypocrites! I noted the irony of the poster in the background, talking about Victory, the masked racist laughing with the defender from EFF as well as the man in the dumpster! The universe is a bitch!".

I respect this guy for his honesty, however twisted. Unlike many people who could not come out and tell the truth about their feelings on the picture, at least this guy was honest enough and admitted to being a hypocrite.

But my Facebook friend was onto something. This picture says so much about South Africa. And to me it does not say what my friend said in his comment.

This picture set tongues wagging because it depicted three controversial South Africans. The first two, in suits and having a hearty laugh, are both hated, for a myriad of reasons, by as many as those who love them. And the third one is completely unknown, but worrying to many a conscience.

Let's face it, Mpofu and Cliff are not the most likeable South Africans. The learned lawyer remains unforgiven by many black South Africans for quitting the ANC to join the EFF. While Cliff, well my friend is given to some infamous comments in public.

And to those who hate both these gentlemen - and hate the fact that one is a 'traitor' legally representing a perceived racist - this picture was anathema. Some could not swallow this turn of events coupled with the hearty laugh they were sharing.

The third unknown South African is collateral damage in this instance. We all do not care about him and the many out there like him. We shun them. We ignore them. And sometimes even abuse them.

But when he suddenly appears in the background of those we hate (for legitimate or illegitimate reasons), the third man, the unknown man, becomes a disposal hero and someone we suddenly love because he exposes the perceived aloofness of those we hate.

I could deal with whether or not Cliff is racist, but that is not the point of my contention at this moment. I could opine on whether someone from the radical EFF should represent someone who attracts so much ire from black people, but those are matters for another day.

What I know though is that a week after Skuy took this picture that may go on to win awards, life has gone back to normal. We are all hiding behind closed windows, high walls, gated suburbs and braais laced with bigoted banter.

In the meantime, the third man in the picture, and his ilk, are still on the streets trying to survive, unknown.

Rams Mabote is a presenter on MetroFM. Follow him on Twitter: @RamsByTheHorns