Death in Ficksburg shows how we value life

In The Politics of Politics, we shall be the prey and the vulture on April 15, 2011 at 7:34 am

, Business Day

A MAN died this week. He died with his arms clutching his chest, trying to stop the blood spilling out of a gaping bullet hole.

His crime? In a country in which nearly 50% of the people live in poverty and where nearly 50% of black people are unemployed — most of them without the prospect of ever finding a job — he died because he wanted a better deal for his community.

In a country in which miscellaneous items worth hundreds of millions of rand are consumed each year by politicians, where people become instant multimillionaires supposedly providing public goods, goods that rarely materialise, this man died because he wanted his government to do its job.

There is no official finding. Early indications are that he was killed, possibly murdered, by the system that is meant to protect him. He was beaten viciously by a group of police officers. Then he was shot. Probably as he was lying on the ground, hurt and defenceless.

I wrote this column in the early hours of yesterday morning. By the time I sent it to this publication, in the middle of the morning, there had not yet been a statement of sympathy, of outrage, of a call for an investigation, from a member of the Cabinet.

A country with three Nobel Peace Prize laureates, a government ruled by a party once described as having the most genteel armed wing in the world, and this is what we have been reduced to?

The public, vicious deaths of citizens at the hands of the people entrusted with protecting our lives seemingly leaves us cold.

In Andries Tatane’s death we have shown, unequivocally, how we value life in a country with a constitution that is supposed to be the most progressive and enviable in the world.

This is not simply about police brutality. This is about national brutality. The police are simply a reflection of the society we are. It begins with the acceptance of the brutality of poverty and economic injustice.

Former President Thabo Mbeki described SA as a country with two economies, a first economy and a second economy.

Between 70% and 80% of South Africans live in that second economy and it is a place of humiliating and incapacitating poverty.

The overwhelming majority of our country survives on a household income of less than R2500 a month, most will spend between R500 and R1500 a month on accommodation because there is a shortage of pro-poor housing stock.

That is ignoring for a moment that even R1000 will simply get you a makeshift room. These households must then feed, clothe and send their children to school.

These poor people must survive in an economy in which pricing is determined by the need to satisfy the earning expectations of first-world citizens and their price-fixing and where their government has failed to provide functioning public infrastructure.

The poverty in which vast numbers of South Africans live can make places such as Alexandra seem like places of privilege.

We have people who have been on housing lists for more than a decade, many of them the supposed recipients of supposed houses built by people who live it up at bling parties, hobnobbing with the political and business elites of the first world.

Meanwhile, provinces are rushing to outlaw shack settlements.

We seek instead to criminalise the poor for being poor.

They must know their place and sit in the dust bowls that apartheid shipped them out to until the rest of us have eaten.

We cannot have them scarring the vistas of our first economy.

The maladministration and poor governance is tolerated, rewarded even.

The unequivocal message from the reaction to the death of Tatane in Ficksburg is that not only do we do not value the lives of our people, the government has a minimal sense of accountability to its citizens. If it does not care about their lives then how can it possibly care about its duty to them?

This is not simply about poor governance and delivery, it is about economic and social justice. There is something repugnant, for instance, about the ease with which we demonise workers in our battle against inflation, when the problem is multifaceted.

In a country of bread-price fixers, officials who steal from children and pensioners, and crass chauvinistic materialists, the ease with which the working class has become the enemy of the country is a reflection of the society we have become

We can comfort ourselves and tell ourselves that we have a democracy and a constitution and that there will be no violent uprisings in this country.

Yet democracy is not a piece of paper. It functions only if people believe they have a real choice, and many do not think they do.

In that context, the combination of extraordinary inequality, material excess, poor political accountability and responsiveness, and debilitating, brutalising corruption will eventually spread the flames engulfing poor, black SA into our comfortable little first world.

We are becoming tribes at war. We need to find our way back to prioritising an inclusive and just society.


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