JUDITH FEBRUARY: Let those in power stand in shame


We watched as Minister of Social Development, Lindiwe Zulu, climbed out of a police van and used a loudhailer to bark instructions at the most vulnerable in our society. Zulu berated the same people in the queue for not social distancing, which was immediately followed by police spraying the crowd with water cannons.

To be clear, the people being ‘addressed’ had queued for hours waiting to renew their disability grants in person. This was immediately followed by police spraying the crowd with water cannons.

The little scene was a graphic example of how completely out of touch this government is. Afterwards Zulu, without any sense of irony said, “This Lindiwe Zulu can never run away from the people, this must be understood.”

But our memories are not that short. This is the same Zulu who has presided over administrative chaos in her department with disinterest. It is the same minister who took a shopping break in the midst of our hard lockdown last year and plastered it all over social media.

Was Zulu repentant? No. She has also been 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!”

She then claimed that she had asked police to stop spraying the vulnerable with water. This is the lack of empathy we have come to expect from Zulu and others in Cabinet like her.

Poverty, if these ministers are unaware, has a face. It is the face of Michael Komape who drowned in his own faeces in a pit latrine toilet at his school. It is the face of the many others we know will tragically have the same fate as Michael.

Zulu’s actions make it worthwhile to remember the indignity many suffer daily at the hands of an aloof and uncaring state.

The palpable violence of poverty and exclusion is a near-routine experience for our country’s most vulnerable citizens.

The death of five-year-old Michael in 2014 and the Life Esidimeni tragedy, which saw more than 100 people die after the Gauteng Health Department moved them from existing care facilities to others run by NGOs, stand out as the most brutal examples of the neglect of the Zuma years, 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 the death of a vulnerable child?

Michael’s story made the news. Millions of nameless and faceless South Africans facing the daily grind of poverty do not warrant a headline or a semblance of outrage. It is simply how things are for many who live in desperate circumstances.

As these ministers sashay into poverty-stricken areas where hope is in short supply and as they come with plans for a better world, do they truly see?

Phendukani Silwani died after a brush with our health care system - inadequate and often callous if one is poor. While many doctors bravely manage to work within a broken system - and we owe them a debt of gratitude for not giving up - health care is often a lottery for the poor, especially in rural areas.

Karen Press, in her beautiful poem for Silwani, reminds us of the dreams that come in childhood, the joys which are mostly unfulfilled when one is poor and no-one cares and when one’s parents do not have the voice and agency which comes so easily and so effortlessly to the middle class.

She writes,

Let Phendukani Silwani stand for all Departments of Health, all out-patient queues and closed wards and unbought drugs and spent doctors.

Let Phendukani Silwani stand for all Departments of Education, all unbuilt schools and untrained teachers and stolen food and books bearing false witness.

Let Phendukani Silwani stand for all Departments of Housing, all cracked walls and broken pipes and poisoned streets and lost gardens.

Let Phendukani Silwani stand for all parents with emptied arms and bent heads whose tears hang like silver nooses in the air.

Let him stand for all children, all parcels of carbon and light who come only once, and vanish forever.

Let Phendukani Silwani stand for himself only, only he existed in his small body, only he was there, looking out at us, at the tall grass that hid him, at the unreachable blue sky.

Thank you for the paracetamol.

Thank you for the social grant.

But let him stand for the government, which has let him and so many others down.

Let him stand too for those who battle a feckless bureaucracy day after day.

Let them all stand.

And one might add, let those in power stand in shame. But shame is a rare commodity in South African public life.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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