Back to the South Africa we know and love

Jeremy Gordin writes on Dr Bandile Masuku and eNCA's 1.5m graves blunder

There I was, brother and sisters, on Wednesday night, a 67-year-old geezer sitting peacefully in his freezing “TV room,” minding Tony Soprano’s and his own business and puffing quietly on some ill-gotten pipe tobacco, when, seeing it was 7pm, I thought I’d cross not to “the other side” but to eNCA for some news.

And there was Sally Burdett, an old soldier, as it were – perhaps not as old as I am but experienced enough, I’d have thought, to tell the difference between a hawk and a handsaw and therefore a news reader who generally instils confidence in a viewer such as I.

Ms Burdett announced that the Gauteng province was busy preparing 1,5 million grave sites for the forthcoming peak of Covid-19 infections in the province. Across the screen below her pleasing punim was a banner headline: “More than a million graves prepared in Gauteng”.

Read that again, please: 1,500,000 grave sites.

I then witnessed an interview with the Gauteng MEC (member of the provincial executive council) for health, a gentleman by the name of Dr Bandile Edgar Wallace Masuku.

The apparently learned Masuku said: “We are preparing over 1,5-million grave sites. All our municipalities have been putting up capacity [sic] and acquiring more in terms of the land that they’ll need for burial. It is an uncomfortable subject and one of the things that I would like to say is that we still have a good opportunity to manage how the peak treats us and how they [sic] would be able to pass through Gauteng.”

I thought I was hallucinating. Maybe the LSD I once tried 44 years ago at a Dizzy Gillespie/Thelonious Monk concert had returned to bite me in the proverbial. You never know, you know. Maybe I was infected with Covid-19. After all, CNN business shouter Richard Quest told us recently that among the effects of Covid, with which he has been infected, are “[mental] chaos and confusion”.

Given the wonders of modern technology, I scrolled back to the start of the news. But there was the same stuff, all over again. High-speed déjà vu.

I immediately phoned a friend. But though he is a wise and temperate man, not for nothing have I dubbed him “the world’s most charming hypochondriac” – and he offered little in the way of solace.

He agreed with my gorgeous wife (whom I’d also rapidly consulted) that there existed a strong possibility that someone had been granted a tender and was getting a lot of money per hole. Alternatively, he suggested (as his hypochondria kicked in), someone was not telling us the truth about our infection and death rates or our expected death rates.

However, we did the math and calmed down a little. World-wide just under 550 000 souls have perished from Covid-19, out of a world population of 7,8 billion. Not only this but the population of Gauteng is in the region of 14,5 million, unless there’re many, many more Zimbabweans, Malawians, Nigerians and Congolese than we think.

Even if you’re numerically challenged, as I am [“there are three kinds of journalists, those who can count and those who can’t”], you follow my drift, yeah? Unless Iran or Israeli is planning to nuke us – about which Dr Masuku knows and we don’t – or unless Dr Masuku know something about Covid-19 that no one else does – it’s well-nigh impossible for us to have 1,5 million fatalities in Gauteng in the next couple of weeks.

What about Dr Masuku then? I’d been alerted, as it were, to him when he appeared a couple of months ago, also on eNCA, being interviewed while doing the rounds at some Gauteng hospital. He looked monumentally dull and his responses seemed obtuse.

But so it goes, I thought, it takes all sorts, and I forgot about Masuku until a day or two before his (grave) grave sites interview – when, in another eNCA interview, he launched a completely unwarranted attack on Prof Alex van den Heever’s criticism of government’s Covid-19 “strategy”. He referred to Van den Heever as a “so-called professor” and said that Van den Heever’s suggestion that the Gauteng “plan” was shrouded in mystery – was garbage.

Masuku told eNCA: “Our strategy has been quite focused and there is evidence of work that we have done on focusing on hotspots. When you talk about prevention not being effective, it becomes a big problem, maybe he [Van den Heever] must from his educated point of view [sic] indicate what he means when he says the strategy is not working and there is not a strategy.”

Ah well, I thought, “government” doctors are under pressure right now and therefore a trifle prickly. So it goes.

Early on Thursday morning I had reason to speak to a chommie, until recently the chief bottle-washer at (what used to be) one of the largest and most competent newspaper groups in the land. What gives, I asked him.

“Who knows?” he replied. “There’re supposed to be experienced folk whom we trust at eNCA. I know you, Jeremy, think that Burdett or the news editor, if they have one, would have closely interrogated such a report. But what you don’t really appreciate is just how incompetent newsrooms are these days.

“Alternatively,” he continued, “you and I are living in some sort of parallel universe – and we don’t really know how bad things are out there.”

The rest of Thursday was taken up with various spokespeople trying to row back on Masuku’s pronouncements or explaining that he was merely pointing out that grave sites have to be readied for the “peak” of Gauteng Covid-19 deaths and that there are 1,5 million such sites ready, should we need them. But no apology or retraction was proffered.

So, there you go, folks. Our mainstream media seems to be regurgitating whatever is ladled up, without the basic checks and balances. Seeing to hospital beds, nursing staff and PPE is not a priority in Gauteng, preparing grave sites is. And our health MEC, notwithstanding his medical degree, appears to be something of a buffoon.

Look on the bright side. If you are going to require a grave site, there’ll be one for you. Second, we are neither hallucinating nor living in a parallel reality. At the start of Covid-19 shenanigans, various people assured us we were living in a brave new South Africa.

Nah, this is the South Africa we know and love.