JUDITH FEBRUARY: South Africa, this country of ours of no consequences


A security guard is filmed writhing in the parking lot of a Philippi school. He is wailing and gurgling. It is the guttural sound of deep grief. It is barely 8am on Tuesday, 21 September and he has witnessed a teacher at Heinz Park Primary in Philippi, Mr Thulani Manqoyi, being shot dead in the school parking lot.

There were children in the school playground at the time and teachers reporting for duty as they would on any ordinary Tuesday morning. On this day, however, two armed men overpowered the security guard, calmly walked into the parking lot, and shot the teacher while he was still in his car. They left the scene of the crime, the report says. Did they run; one wonders? Or did they wander off casually, confident that they would not be caught?

Western Cape Education MEC, Debbie Schafer, called it a “senseless tragedy”. A local community activist described the community’s shock and distress. He called on government to act. We are inured to these words. The government rarely acts and “senseless tragedies” are forgotten all too soon for “we carry death in a thousand cleaving spectres” in this country, as Antjie Krog says in her poem, Country of grief and grace.

At the time of writing, no-one had been arrested.

Screeds have been written about the reform needed within the Police Service, the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, himself is a big on talk, but mostly a parody of a minister whom no-one takes seriously.

When the latest crime statistics were released in August, there was a debate about whether crime had decreased or increased and whether one could draw meaningful comparisons between 2020 and 2021 given the COVID-19 pandemic.

Statistics are obviously important but really, one is splitting hairs given that South Africa’s murder rate is about six times the global average. Simply put, no-one is safe anywhere.

Recent Afrobarometer findings show trust in public institutions is at an all-time low. Around 24% of those surveyed said they had to pay a bribe to avoid trouble with the police and 15% said they had to pay a bribe to obtain police assistance. The system is rotten to its very core.

In a country that values human life, any police minister would have been shown the door by now. Instead, Cele retains his position. The President needs Cele’s support, we are told. And so, our safety becomes another casualty of internal ANC factionalism and dysfunction.

The antecedents to violence in South Africa are many. Violence has always marked the landscape. It stalks the land, in townships, hostels, and suburbs. It finds expression in the violence the state visits on people daily through poverty and a lack of care and respect. Michael Komape’s parents can bear witness as their son drowned in his own faeces in a pit latrine toilet. The families of the Life Esidimeni victims understand this violence too as they wait for justice from a cruel and heartless state.

But the violence also finds expression in the lack of accountability by those in power.

Last week we heard former President Jacob Zuma contend that his human rights have been violated following his prison sentence for contempt of court. Despite allegedly wanting his ‘day in court’, Zuma has engaged in all manner of ‘litigious skulduggery’ to evade accountability. The ANC itself has enabled and facilitated Jacob Zuma’s assault on our constitutional democracy repeatedly. Is it any wonder that Zuma, now on medical parole, believes that he is above the law? Releasing Zuma was a cynical act by the National Commissioner of Correctional Services, Arthur Fraser, whose contract is due to end in a matter of days now.

South Africans may therefore be justified in thinking that if one ensures enough violence and mayhem, eventually one’s political friends will find a way out of the sticky legal situation. Given that Zuma’s former financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, was released on medical parole and seen on the golf course not long thereafter, it is unsurprising that South Africans are sceptical of Zuma’s sudden and possibly ‘terminal illness’.

In the same vein, the new Speaker of Parliament, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, has escaped the scrutiny of a Parliamentary inquiry into allegations that she received bribes and other benefits worth more than R5 million via defence contracts. Former Health Minister, Zweli Mkhize, has been the subject of an SIU investigation in the ‘Digital Vibes’ matter at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. President Ramaphosa has been seized with the SIU report since July.

The governing ANC is imploding; it is incapable of registering candidates for the local government election on time and cannot pay its staff. The party, adrift from its ethical moorings, deeply divided and cannabalising itself, can provide neither leadership nor ethical and capable government. To the ANC, accountability means shifting someone like Mapisa-Nqakula from Cabinet to the powerful position of Speaker.

Recently, when speaking of the July ‘insurrectionists’ (his lexicon), Ramaphosa told us “we know who they are”. Yet, those who planned the insurrection still walk freely amongst us. During the frightening violence of July, we understood too that we are entirely alone as police either enabled the looting and mayhem, or stood watching passively as billions were wiped off the economy and infrastructure was destroyed. This is a society where criminals wander around unfettered and where words like “full might of the law’ are rendered meaningless by a compromised, weak and incapable state

There is a direct linkage between the lack of accountability by the powerful and those who exploit the broken state to loot or commit murder in broad daylight.

This country of no consequence demands much from those who live in it. What do the school children, teachers and Philippi community do with the collective trauma of losing their colleague in a cold-blooded murder? What does the family of the murdered man do with their trauma after the platitudes have been spoken?

What do we all do with this gaping wound of violence oozing its toxins into our communities? What do we do with the wailing security guard, and how can we say tomorrow will be different?

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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