When lives don't matter

Jeremy Gordin writes on what our commentariat do and don't get upset about

When, 52 or 53 years ago, being (then) of sound mind and body, I was trying to snag chicks – probably a word I shouldn’t use, but so it goes – I used to tell them inter alia that I was a poet.

This meant that I was required to read some of the greats; what if I were cross-examined by a beauty who knew her poesy? One of them (the greats, not the beauties) was Ezra Pound – whom I’d later discover was an appalling anti-Semite [1], but so it also goes – and I came across this poem of his, which greatly perplexed me.

Spring ...
Too long ...
Gongula ...

It took me much study (when I should have been paying attention to science and Maths) and one good guide (GS Fraser) to learn that it was just a Poundian “joke”. The poem is the imaginary translation of an imaginary papyrus from some ancient civilization, most of which has been (imaginarily) ripped away, so we’ve been left with only the first word of each line.

Gongula, we assume (or we did 50 years ago), is a woman’s name, and the papyrus, were it complete, would read something like this: “Spring [has come again]. /Too long [have I been away from thee], / Gongula [my dearest].” The “joke” is that simple love lyrics are pretty much the same in any civilization at any time.

Reason I have been thinking about this squib is that it seems we have some budding Poundian poets on Twitter; and that, notwithstanding their troubles, Seffricans can sometimes be very funny.

As soon as it was announced that President Cyril Ramaphosa was going to address the nation on Wednesday evening (as he indeed did), of course someone on Twitter asked what people thought Ramaphosa might say. There was immediately a flood of replies along the following Poundian lines:

Apartheid blah blah blah.
Economy blah blah blah.
Corruption blah blah blah.
Green shoots blah blah blah.
Covid blah blah blah.
My fellow South Africans blah blah blah.

We Seffricans really know our Frogboiler, don’t we? He did cover at least three or four of the above and, yes, mostly it was blah blah blah, especially the economic stuff. If you don’t believe me, have a look at what he said then look at what Ann “Onze Ann” Bernstein says.

Trouble with the Twitterati, though, is that they’re mostly a bit like all those children who unquestioningly followed the Pied Piper of Hamelin to we-know-not-where. They can be easily led away from the matter at hand by any new topic that seizes their collective fancy. And we’ve had a few of those in recent days.

There’s been that nice man, ANC SG Ace Magashule, being summonsed to appear in court [2]. There’ve also been our 2020 by-elections, which no one seemed to notice until they were four days away. And then of course there has been the fandango at Brackenfell High School near Cape Town, nicely mucked up by Judge Siraj Desai (what a boytjie!).

The hysteria over the Brackenfell incident was of course perfect (a perfect storm?) for getting those Twitter fingers dancing ... and then other stuff gets quickly forgotten.

Did anyone notice, all those months ago, that there was precious little attention, if any, paid to SANDF soldiers murdering Alexandra resident Collins Khoza on 11 April? Oh yes, in other media and on Twitter there was much fuss some months later – but not in the days and weeks immediately after it happened.

Or did anyone notice that, although railways and stations had been stripped and looted for six months (if not longer), it was only noticed after a Sowetan reporter wrote about it on 7 September and it was subsequently reported here?

In short, it seems sometimes one has to try to help focus not only the Twitterati – but also the news desks of the main media companies, who seem to follow the Twitterati rather than the actual news. Well, it’s always easier not to have to think for oneself, isn’t it, to have someone else set your agenda?

So, here’s one. According to (initially) the BBC but now also the Los Angeles Times, ABC News, Al Jazeera, and numerous other news outlets – though not a single local one that I could see – starting last Friday night more than 50 people had their heads chopped off in northern Mozambique, allegedly by militant Islamists.

The militants are reported to have turned a football pitch in a village called Muatide in Muidumbe, Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, into an “execution ground,” where they decapitated and chopped up bodies.

One report reads: “The rebels abducted 15 boys participating in traditional initiation rites and their five counselors. All 20 were beheaded along with nine others... [Then] the extremists went on to decapitate 22 more people ...”

Take a minute and picture it if you can bear to do so. Some 50 people, villagers, women, and children, poor, not very literate, unsophisticated people, ordinary people, were lined up on a soccer pitch and had their heads chopped off.

Why? According to what one reads, the “militant” group is ISIS-linked – and we are repeatedly told that Muslim extremists tend to cut off people’s heads. But why would they do that in Cabo Delgado without video cameras?

One doesn’t even know how “true” or correct the reports are. The place is so far from anywhere that there are not even any Mozambican reporters there; the BBC reporter (Jose Tembe) was reporting from Maputo.

Then on Thursday night, eNCA woke up and Sally Burdett interviewed Piers Pigou, Crisis Group's Senior Consultant for Southern Africa, who said the reports of decapitations had not been confirmed and that the local “militants” were not necessarily connected to ISIS, but that the area was undoubtedly an area where many people were being killed.

Additionally, Valige Tauabo, the governor of Cabo Delgado, denied that 50 people had been beheaded; and yesterday the Bishop of Pemba, Luiz Fernando Lisboa, who had initially said the story was true, also seemed to sidestep the story of mass beheadings.

In short, we really don’t know if the story is accurate. All we seem to know for certain is that the “security situation” is precarious, more than 400 000 people are said to have fled the rural parts of Cabo Delgado, and the Mozambican government has sealed off the area.

And when you read the following sturdy trope, which has also appeared in some reports, that “Human rights groups say Mozambican security forces have also carried out human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture and killings,” well, then you realise that you can’t really trust most of what you read now, i.e., there’s more than one agenda at play. 

If the report is accurate, which is every minute becoming more questionable, then one thing we do know is that more people were butchered than were gunned down by police at Marikana. If it’s inaccurate, fake news, well then, it’s fake news – someone want us to be riled up for his or her own reasons.

But whichever way this pans out, why not a significant peep for days from the local media? Why have no local reporters been flown to Mozambique to tell us the “truth”? Why not a word from our blah blah blah president? Don’t we have excellent “fraternal” relations with Mozambique? How about a word from Naledi “hong hong” Pandor?

Why not a word from the EFF? Aren’t (or weren’t) these people our African brothers and sisters? Or is it easier to rabbit on about shampoo, Ranjeni Munusamy, Senekal and Brackenfell High?

Or could it be that there’s a part of Black Lives Matter that many people don’t understand? I mean the part that doesn’t apply when it’s a group of “unimportant” villagers without cell phones or influence in some forgotten part of Africa? 


[1] Though Pound did later apologise in his inimitable manner: “In addition to discussing literature and politics, Pound defends himself from charges of anti-Semitism with the ...remark that ‘some kike might manage to pin an antisem [sic] lable [sic] on me IF he neglected the mass of my writing’.” [Letter to Jackson Mac Low, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University Library in New Haven, Connecticut, 2012.]

[2] Nice piece on Magashule by the way by Ferial Haffajee on the Daily Maverick site, though someone should explain to Ms H and the DM subs that a “hospital pass” is not what they seem to think it is. They should all be forced to spend an hour with Eben Etzebeth.