A country that passeth all understanding

Jeremy Gordin writes on resigning himself to the unreality of the South African experience

Reality and mortality, mortality and reality – it is on these that I have of late been cogitating.

This is not easy for me. Perhaps because I’m elderly (recently turned 68) or perhaps because I have a mild form of attention-deficit-disorder, my mind tends to wander.

For example, the phrase “I have of late” always reminds me of Prince Hamlet (when I was a little boy always referred to by my cousins as Piglet): “I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire – why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours”.

William “Bill” Shakespeare had a point though, didn’t he? If you think about Covid-19, we are indeed surrounded by a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. But who these days wants to think about Covid-19?

Not too many people do – certainly not on my section of the promontory. The cold fronts seem to have gone, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, is warm and, as I walked along the local street of eateries this morning (some of which have closed, but only some), I noted they were full of people eating and breathing and coughing on one another.

It’s as though Covid-19 were a thing of the past. But is it? According to the official stats the local death toll today stands at 15 168. But, according to the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC), the figure of excess, “natural” deaths from May 6 until September 1 comes in at 42 396.

Of course, not all “excess” deaths are due to Covid-19. But as the SAMRC notes, “[a]lthough more data are needed on the underlying causes of death, [the strong correlation between the two sets of data] is strongly supportive [of the view] that a significant proportion of the current excess mortality being observed in South Africa is likely to be attributable to COVID-19”.

Do you think health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize devotes any thought to the SAMRC numbers? Or does he, after his morning coffee, while clearing his throat and slipping on his mask, simply mutter “lies, damned lies and statistics” and go on his merry way?

This reminds me of a note from Joseph Stalin to his state security commissar, one Merkulov, dated 17 June 1941, five days before Germany invaded the Soviet Union. “Comrade Merkulov. You can tell your ‘source’ from German air force headquarters to go fxxx his mother. This is not a ‘source’ – it’s someone spreading disinformation. J. St.”

Anyway, my view is that the foul and pestilent beast is still very much around. Don’t be fooled by the weather, our general Seffrican bonhomie, easy access to tobacco and alcohol, and the nation-wide relief at not having to listen as often to COGTA minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and police minister Bheki “chapeau” Cele.

But I might have it all wrong. Maybe the take of an elderly, diabetic, vaguely rational, white, cisgender man is simply the wrong “reality”. Consider. 

Besides the beast skulking in the surrounding canopy, it seems that our GDP in the second quarter of 2020 fell by 51%. Surprise, surprise. As Herman Mashaba remarked just yesterday: “We face the prospects of unemployment rising above 50%, businesses closing and a massive tax shortfall. The economic consequences of all of this will be more devastating for many of our people living with [in?] extreme poverty”.

But this you know about. Now try this. It seems that unbeknownst to most of us white folk (we have Range Rovers and the Gautrain) Metrorail users – certainly in Gauteng – are for the foreseeable future shtupped straight up the wazoo. Actual rails, overhead electrical cables, and at least 13 railway stations have been destroyed on a wholesale basis.

As Penwell Dlamini of SowetanLive puts it: “[T]heft and vandalism are currently taking place day and night with no clear interest by law enforcement to stop it. The damage is going to leave hundreds of thousands of Metrorail users in limbo when the lockdown regulations are eased to level 1 and trains allowed to return to full operation”.

According to Dlamini, the following. “After Prasa had ended its security contracts at train stations” (at the start of the lockdown), and leaving aside the theft of electrical cabling, some stations have been ripped apart, literally, including the roofs of station “buildings,” ticket offices and even “the clips that keep rails in place on the ground”. This includes, as I noted, the removal of actual rails. It could consequently “take at least two-and-a-half years [that’s 30 months] before an electric train runs in Gauteng again”.

You know who uses these trains? Yes, you do; and their transport costs will rise exponentially. You know who, among others, will profit from this disaster? The taxi bosses. And might this this situation simultaneously suit the minister of transport Fikile Mbalula, Mr Fix-nothing, in terms of his relationship with the taxi bosses, with whom you might recall he had some tough negotiations about whether, in the context of fighting Covid-19, they ought to close windows in taxis and whether passengers could sit on each other’s laps? I’m just asking.

And yet, what – besides the Beast, the disappeared GDP, and the ruined rail infrastructure (about which we hear precious little) – what are we asked to focus on?

A Clicks hair advert – over which the EFF went bananas and badly trashed  at least one store (why not? – easier than, say, mounting guard over, and helping to rebuild, Metrorail rail stations), and which even the mostly sensible Mashaba has described as “being deeply insensitive in a country that lives with the pain of racial inequality from our unjust past. Most South Africans would not deny that the adverts demeaned black people by advancing the idea that black identity is inferior to white identity”.

Even Mr Chapeau has waxed lyrical: “The genesis [sic] of this advert is glaring racism that is shown by this business and we must collectively condemn it at all costs [sic]. The demonstration of such blatant disregard and humiliation of African people can’t go unabated,” Cele said in a statement.

How exactly did the ad cause “pain” (“highly unpleasant physical sensation caused by illness or injury”) by “referring to black natural hair as ‘dry, damaged, and frizzy’”?  How exactly was the advert “humiliating” (“the feeling of being ashamed or losing respect for yourself”) for African people? (Such people seem to me to be made of much sterner stuff; look at the government and treatment with which they put up.)

Foolish, insensitive questions. Obviously, I am incapable of understanding because, as previously mentioned, I’m an elderly, vaguely rational, etc., etc., and doubtless don’t have the necessary empathy.

In short, it’s evident I live in a different, albeit parallel, reality. Perhaps some Politicsweb readers might find themselves in the same condition?

Think of it as a kind of time travel, although instead of moving backwards or forwards, as it were, we travel sideways. I don’t want to get too technical here about time travel but moving sideways allows us not to worry about, for example, the notorious “grandfather paradox”: what if one were to go back in time and kill one’s own grandfather before one’s father were conceived?

Come to think of it, we are perfect subjects for a Christopher Nolan movie. You know, the fellow whose movies are said by Wikipedia to be rooted “in epistemological and metaphysical themes, exploring human morality, the construction of time, and the malleable nature of memory and personal identity”. Remember Inception (2010)? And now Nolan has recently released Tenet, described by one critic as inter alia a “time-slipping” spectacle.

In the meantime, while waiting for Nolan to understand our plight, and given the attendant and anxiety-provoking discombobulation of these reality slippages, one must take care.

I, for one, intend to pretend that Covid-19 is all over. I’m not going to raise my eyebrows about issues relating to GDP. I shan’t take a local train ride any time soon. And if anyone says something about my aforementioned eyebrows being dry, damaged, and frizzy, you just watch me take offence.