A society sadly lacking in humanity

William Saunderson-Meyer says we’ve always been mean and self, and racialism doesn’t help


South Africa is a country singularly lacking in humanity and compassion.

Forget ubuntu, the feel-good schmaltz that asserts African societies somehow have an innate inclination to fraternity and care. Forget, similarly, the delusions of whites who think themselves to be in loco parentis of a Judaeo-Christian tradition of charitable giving and succour. 

We confuse the fact that we are a hospitable people and that we are often spontaneously generous, with a self-serving myth that this is a caring nation. Truth is, we’ve probably always been mean and selfish, with deeply engrained, racism-fuelled antipathies that blunt our humanity.

And such humaneness that we retain is largely hemmed between ethnically defined borders. This patchwork quilt, already weakened along its myriad stitchings, is now further strained by the intolerance and greed that characterises President Jacob Zuma’s years of power. 

So the comforter is tearing, coming apart in a dozen places simultaneously, as it is increasingly placed under intolerable strain. There are dozens of examples; they can be plucked with ease from the grim media reports.

We rape our children, we attack and rob paramedics at accident scenes, and we gouge out the eyes and drill holes in the skulls of our crime victims. The list of gratuitous horror is pretty much never ending.

However, South Africans can perhaps take some comfort in the fact that these are the grisly acts of individuals or mobs acting mindlessly. They take place in opposition to the dictates of the law and in defiance of the power of the state. 

What should worry us far more is the slow transformation of the South African state from the bulwark against violence, to the condoner of violence, and eventually perhaps to be a tacit conspirator in its execution.

For that is what is happening. Calls for the forcible dispossession by blacks of the property of whites – increasingly, also coloureds and Indians – have become so commonplace that they barely elicit comment, never mind outrage.

Sometimes the language is overt, as with Julius Malema while he was in the African National Congress Youth League, and now as leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters. Other times, it is coded.

Last year an ANC Youth League branch chair, Mandla Matikinya, said it was okay to loot foreign-owned shops, that this was a preferable way for the youth to express anger than burning schools. No rebuke of or action against Matikinya was taken by the party, nor by the state.

At the time, University of Witwatersrand academics Loren Landau and Jean Pierre Misago, writing in The Conversation, placed the remark in the context of ongoing public violence, as township groups usurp power from an ineffectual state: “Local leaders need protests to maintain their power and legitimacy. And the protesters need to be fed. Looting is the way to fill their stomachs.”

More subtly, this week, Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s controversial adviser, Professor Chris Malikane, warned us to be “prepared for the worst” if radical economic transformation is to succeed, even if this means South Africans taking up arms against South Africans.

Radical economic transformation, the latest buzz phrase of the Zuma administration in the campaign against “white monopoly capital” is not going to be “nice”. “It’s true that this country will plunge [into crisis] and become like Venezuela and Zimbabwe,” said Malikane sanguinely.

What the radical transformationists are contemplating is the legal exercise at a national level of what Landau and Misago describe as already happening at a local level. Namely, the scapegoating of minorities and the forcible seizure of their assets.

At least such machinations are politically understandable. What we are seeing is a textbook example of an incompetent government, having failed to grow the economic cake sufficiently, increasingly opting to placate its supporters by using populist means of redistribution.

What is more difficult to comprehend is the degree to which the Zuma administration has simultaneously become alienated from many ordinary citizens that traditionally are ANC supporters. Populism is slowly transmogrifying into despotism, as it invariably does.

The scale of the resultant inhumanity can be seen in what became known as the Marikana massacre in 2012, Also, in the so-called Esidimeni tragedy, which has been playing out over the past year.

The police shooting dead of 34 demonstrating miners echoed eerily the shooting in 1960 by apartheid era police of 69 anti-pass law demonstrators. The parallels lay not only in the way the events occurred, but also in the casually brutal behaviour, in both cases, of an arrogant and unaccountable state apparatus.

Esidimeni, too, should arguably more properly be called a massacre. It was certainly not a tragedy in the classical sense that it was somehow inevitable. Rather, it was a direct result of the indifference of haughty officials, combined with the cruelty of greedy individuals contracted to the Gauteng provincial government.

More than 100 psychiatric patients died of prolonged starvation, malnutrition and dehydration, or of untreated critical medical conditions. They had been transferred from the Life Esidimeni group’s private healthcare facilities to dozens of community organisations, most of them hastily set up to rake in the fees Gauteng Health would pay for their “care”.

Not a single person has yet been prosecuted. And despite the Health Ombud having named the medical doctors at Gauteng Health responsible, the Health Professions Council of SA has yet to act. 

No consequences. No humanity, no compassion. 

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