Does SA still hate black people, asks Redi Tlhabi
Michael Komape drowned in human faeces. He went out of the classroom to answer the call of nature and never returned. The pit toilet, a humiliating symbol of poverty and shame, collapsed, swallowing and snuffing out his six-year-old life.
It was January 2014, the start of the new year when every little girl and boy had every reason to be exuberant and excited for the new year.
But not for Komape and many more children in all of South Africa who endure the daily grind of long walks to school because the government school transportation programme has been usurped by greedy, self-serving individuals.
In some provinces, tiny tummies are caving in from hunger because some powerful person has decided to steal the money meant to feed them. Little children face the stench and indignity of faeces coalescing around collapsing and neglected pit toilets, where little boys’ dreams are suffocated. This is our South Africa and it has failed Komape. So what has happened since that fateful day in 2014? The NGO Section27 is representing the Komape family in its application for damages. The matter comes before court tomorrow, November 13.
Why is it even in court? Why is there even a dispute about where the blame lies, given that we have a body of a six-yearold, excavated from human excrement?
Picture-freeze it, a boy fighting against the tide of human shit. It is grotesque, surreal, cruel. It is “us”, the “new” South Africa. The Komapes are seeking R2-million in damages. The government is offering about R450 000.
It is a pittance for a lost life, but class is at play here. What determines the price are factors that were beyond little Michael’s control — his age, background, his parents’ educational background and whether or not he was destined to amount to much in future. In other words, read crudely, if he had stayed poor, trapped in the cycle of poverty, he would not have gone far in life, and the money awarded must reflect that status.
The matter is in court not just because of money but also because of a dispute over the government’s responsibility. Section27 wants a declaratory order that the government has a duty to children to provide toilets that meet safety and sanitation standards. The government is opposing this.
It is hard to see why. The government is not disputing liability for Komape’s death but this “government of the people, by the people” is arguing that the standards of the toilet that snuffed out Komape’s life are the norm, that that toilet was not less safe than any other and that the children in that area are used to such toilets. Don’t gasp. It is true. Basically, the children in that area are used to such humiliating, undignified ablution facilities. If you think this was unique to Komape’s school, you are wrong. Many black South African children, mainly in the rural areas, have to contend with these conditions.
Sometimes it feels like this government hates black people, like its predecessor did. Why would it argue that pit toilets are not hazardous? That this was the norm for “our people”?
It is also worth asking why, if the toilets were “normal”, did the government race against time, after Komape’s death, to refurbish toilets at his school and other schools in the area? Why fix what is not broken? Because it IS broken. Let’s not forget that another NGO, Equal Education, had to take the government to court over norms and standards for school infrastructure. After a visit to schools across seven districts in the Eastern Cape, Equal Education found appalling, dehumanising conditions prevalent at most schools.
So tomorrow, Komape’s family will face an uncaring system, presided over by the government “of the people, by the people”.
They will wonder why they had to sacrifice their little boy.
Sometimes it feels like this government hates black people, like its predecessor