SOME­THING STINKS

Does SA still hate black peo­ple, asks Redi Tl­habi

Sunday Times - - FRONT PAGE - Tl­habi is a broad­cast jour­nal­ist and au­thor, most re­cently, of “Kh­wezi — The Re­mark­able Story of Fezek­ile Nt­sukela Kuzwayo”

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

REDI TL­HABI

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