Painted black

Jeremy Gordin on South Africa's dismal apartheid-style lockdown experience

Remember a 1961 book, Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin?

After swallowing many doses of methoxsalen and spending up to 15 hours a day under an ultraviolet lamp, Griffin was able to pass as a black person and in 1959 took a six-week journey through the then racially-segregated states of the US to see what life was like on the other side of the colour line.

I’m apparently a Caucasian, don’t own an ultraviolet lamp, and just say No to drugs (except sugar, nicotine, cannabis, alcohol, TV news, and anti-diabetic and anti-ADD ones). Moreover, I live in a modest Parkview house, have enough in the bank and the fridge for a couple of weeks or so, and am married to a gorgeous blue-eyed, blond-ish-haired person, who swears that the two seemingly Caucasian people to whom she gave birth were engendered by me.

Nonetheless, it struck me forcibly this morning that I now understand, far better, what it must have felt like to be a black man living in South Africa in circa 1980. Why do I say this? Let me, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, count the ways.


Yesterday, an apparently authentic letter was shown to MPs sitting on the defence portfolio committee, in which the president of the Republic, Cyril Ramaphosa, indicated that he wants to deploy an additional 73 180 soldiers onto SA’s streets “consisting of the regular force, reserve force and auxiliary force”.

Needless to say, this planned deployment reminded me of the times when (SADF) soldiers were set loose in the townships, e.g. in 1976 and 1980. And, goodness me, these days there even occur untoward “accidents” of the sort that happened many years ago – such as the apparent murder by soldiers (and possibly police) of Collins Khosa, 40, in Alexandra. It seems he had committed the crime of drinking alcohol inside his yard. An Englishman’s home might be his castle, but obviously not an Alexandran’s.

Of course, although the incident was clearly caught on cellphone video, there is all sorts of fake news flying around. Besides, an “inquiry” needs to be completed. The apparent murder took place on April 10 – that’s 12 days ago – but such investigations take time. If you don’t understand this, Minister of Defen(siveness) Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula will tell you to hang your head in shame until you do.

Now, not being a person who initially grasps the larger issues, I first wondered about those “reserve” and “auxiliary” forces referred to by the president. Would these include MK veterans? Would veteran reserve and/or MK officers such as Brian “Bunny” Molefe of Eskom fame, not to mention Carl Niehaus, Kebby Maphatsoe and Ronnie Kasrils, soon be deployed in Wicklow Avenue, Parkview? Awesome stuff.

More important issues. The letter reads: “The employment of the additional members of the SANDF is for the period of April 2 to June 26.” It’s now April 22. So, is this just an “old” letter – a getting-the-records-up-to-date, bookkeeping-type letter? But what’s this “June 26” date? Has Ramaphosa given his game away – is he going to keep some sort of lockdown in place till the end of June? I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

Talking of which, the reason for the extra deployment, wrote Ramaphosa, was because the number of coronavirus infections continues to increase in SA, despite the nationwide lockdown. As of Tuesday, there were 58 deaths from Covid-19, and 3 465 confirmed cases. Can someone please explain to me? Which parts of what a lockdown is designed to accomplish, what it has or hasn’t achieved, when it should be halted or greatly eased, and what enormous damage it is doing, does the president not grasp?

Back to my woes. One of the wonders of life as a black person in the old days was the mind-boggling moronicism of certain regulations. Hello? So how about the lockdown ones that we have prohibiting the sale of cigarettes, booze, and now hot food, and exercise outside your compound? 

For my sins, I spent a few hours last night listening to a recording of the earlier so-called presentation by Minister of Cooperative Governance Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (NDZ) to the parliamentary portfolio committee dealing with Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, the delightfully named COGTA.

I regret I was none the wiser. No matter: journalist Ferial Haffajee was – or was after Ramaphosa spoke later about his sale of South Africa to the People’s Republic of China. She tweeted: “When you see how Trump, Bolsanaro, Modi and Johnson are mismanaging the ... pandemic, ...Ramaphosa is doing a good job ...” Clearly, Haffajee doesn’t drink, smoke, or own a dog.

It’s difficult to think of more palpably asinine provisions than those regarding cigs, booze, exercise and hot food. During her catatonic rambling, NDZ said that “alcohol and tobacco are not essentials” – tell that to some of the smokers and drinkers I know, but bring your bodyguard with you, ma’am – and she added for good measure “that alcohol  leads to all sorts of crimes,” which could have the effect of taking away hospital beds we might need.

As for hot food, prepared in a supermarket, the apparent downside of this is that people will flock out of their homes instead of staying inside cooking, as they ought to do. NDZ did not, however, address the lives of our “essential workers,” some of whom work long hours – and like to stop off to get some hot food on their ways home. Nor did NDZ mention those who have no food at all.

Do you think, given NDZ’s dreary maunderings, that she’s smoking something? Surely not, she’s a medical doctor; but might she be partaking of magic mushrooms? After all, she certainly is a fan of magical thinking. For, if you will allow me a short digression, I was, with some help, reminded of the following.

Many thrash former President Thabo Mbeki over the HIV/Aids disaster. But, if you research the subject, the trouble first began in 1996 with NDZ and the Sarafina II scandal. Notwithstanding being a medical doctor, it was NDZ who bought into Sarafina II as a prevention message – which, as some noticed, failed. Looking for a comeback, NDZ went with Virodene as a miracle cure. This was before ARVs were a viable and affordable alternative. I.e., her response to an utterly terrible and hopeless situation, one even worse than now, was to resort to magical thinking. It was NDZ too who (with Mbeki’s support) blocked an emerging rival treatment, in the form of AZT, for the prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV.

Now tell me, is there such a huge difference between the magical thinking that led the ANC party to support the development of Virodene – a patch on your arm can cure AIDS – and lockdown – the view that a draconian shut down of the country and the economy by an incapable state is going to save us from a novel respiratory disease?

But what about James Thomas Kruger and various other geniuses from the days of yore? Surely NDZ is but one person and one swallow doesn’t make a summer. No, no; I think we’re doing well these days.

In the so-called National Command Council, we have Minister of Police (General) Bheki Cele. Now, although every regime, like every rugby team, needs at least one Enforcer (think Bakkies Botha or Eben Etzebeth), although Cele seems to be, like a good SS officer, merely an order-taker and -implementer, and although English is clearly not his mother tongue (which you can’t hold against him) – he is also incomprehensible, malevolent (quite possibly racist), asinine, incapable of wearing a protective mask correctly and his mother dresses him in funny hats.

Then there’s Minister of Trade and Industry Ebrahim Patel, whom I had thought was sensible, but alas, seems like a child stumbling about in a dark forest, lost and frightened in a Stalinist miasma. And what about Minister of Social Development, Lindiwe Daphney Zulu, who dresses inappropriately in ersatz Struggle gear, and Minister of Transport, Fikile Mbalula, both of whose lifts clearly don’t go anywhere near the top floor. And let’s not forget Minister of Mineral Resources, Gwede Mantashe, ever incomprehensible and a prize-winning stumblebum.

My dompas? Got one of those – a mixture of a non-plastic shopping bag and a grocery list.

Still, I do concede that there exist things that don’t make me feel like a black person in South Africa in 1980. There is, above all, science.

The Guardian (well, you can’t have everything) has just reported that the French claim there is a substance in tobacco that might lower the risk of getting coronavirus and they’re planning to test nicotine patches on coronavirus patients. I’m not certain, though, whether the details of the study have been filtered or are plain for all to see. Might this be more magical thinking? Still, light your smoke (if you have one) and enjoy it in the knowledge that you’re looking after your health.

Only questions are: Will I be prosecuted for telling you about this? Will NDZ go to war with renowned French neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux, as she did with the MCC and Professor Peter Folb?

Will we soon discover that cognac reverses global warming?