2014 in South Africa was marked by a number of large-scale national scandals. Far more insidious, however, are the small, subtle, everyday distortions or omissions of truth which have become pervasive in our political discourse. These distortions, championed by politicians, characterize the public, the media, NGOs and academia.
2014 was not the only year in which insincerity, fabrication, half truths and downright disinformation became our national pastime in South Africa, but it must reign up there with the best. Beyond major domestic deceptions - like the presidential fire pool, or the African National Congress (ANC) Women's League's commitment to gender equality - a subtler, less obvious form of dishonesty has eaten holes in our society's fabric through which individual integrity, principles and basic human decency is leaking at an alarming rate. Although these small, everyday disortions or omissions of the truth and silent vested compromises rarely evoke more than a disinterested shrug, the frequency of their deployment and broad acceptance by a seemingly credulous or self-interested public is far more insidious than the grand national scandals that elicit loud righteous condemnation.
Warmly embraced by the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry, ratepayers bodies, and certain strident civic groups, the eThekwini Municipality's ‘Clean My City’ campaign set a precedent for 2014 hyperbole. A specially convened unit of the South African Police Service (SAPS), Metro Police, Durban Solid Waste and Home Affairs, swept daily through Durban, burning homeless' shelters, sjamboking vagrants, allegedly eliciting thousands of rands in bribes from undocumented immigrants, and destroying meagre possessions while forcibly erasing photographs of their actions from the cellphones of anyone unwise enough to believe South Africa was not a police state.
The city's Qalakabushu Albert Park Intervention followed almost immediately. According to Durban Mayor, James Nxumalo, the crowd of just under a thousand heroin addicts and other 'undesirables' which had gathered over time at what was now known as Whoonga Park, would be ‘rehabilitated and reunited with their families’ while ‘the supply of drugs would be reduced through the identification of production and manufacturing sources’.
Cheered on by Social Development MEC, Weziwe Thusi's calls to, ‘drive these people into the sea’, the task force dispensed with the fabled rehabilitation aspect of the 'intervention' and simply rounded up and dumped thousands of Durban's dispossessed at Umkomaas, Umbogintwini, anywhere, as long as it was beyond the city's limits. This naturally led to tensions between police doing the dumping and police on the receiving end, resulting in unconfirmed reports of police-on-police violence. Things came to a head when a senior officer stabbed a Metro Police constable/South African Municipal Workers’ Union (SAMWU) shop steward with a pen for having the temerity to question the legality of the forced removal orders.
Other blowback included the reported discovery of Jackson Mthembu's son among the Whoonga Park denizens. The raids dispersed addicts and petty criminals throughout the leafy Glenwood and poor Umbilo suburbs and fueled vigilante reprisals from both neighbourhoods. For many years, white vigilantism in Glenwood has been an open secret, so racial tensions reached boiling point when the poor, mainly black community of Umbilo were loudly criticised by both Glenwood residents and city authorities alike, when they allegedly took similar action against Whoonga Park inhabitants.
Throughout the turmoil, the municipality steadfastly denied dumping the homeless was city policy, and clung to the fiction that addicts were indeed rehabilitated and repatriated to their families. The corporate elite and public broadly applauded the city's deception and assuaged their selective conscience regarding the human and constitutional rights violations by condemning the naysayers.
‘It doesn't help to point fingers. At least the municipality is trying to do something,’ was one peevish response.
With an annual R3.1 billion social spend, a R2.3 billion housing and R404 million town centre renewal municipal budget, a large percentage of which is likely to disappear again into dodgy politically-connected tender deals, the 'something' that is being 'tried', at the obscene expense of the city's most downtrodden, should be quite obvious for all to see. But the truth is becoming increasingly painful for South Africans.
At provincial level too, government pretended to care, while the public and press pretended to believe them, this time at the expense of the lives and living conditions of residents at two of Durban's biggest hostels - Glebelands and KwaMashu.
At Glebelands Hostel, after seven months of sustained violence during which time sixteen murders, four cases of alleged police torture, numerous attempted hits, assaults, petrol bombings, intimidation and over 100 illegal evictions left many homeless, destitute and traumatised, the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) ANC heavyweight team jetted in to sort out the troublemakers at a Mass Community Meeting on 28 September.
In just a few hours, to much media hype but little community consultation, KZN Premier, Senzo Mchunu, miraculously swept aside years of community versus ward councillor hostility; unilaterally dismantled long established, democratically elected hostel leadership structures - which he cited as the cause of the violence; deployed hardcore police units, seemingly to suppress further dissent rather than protect residents; and announced a R10 million hostel security upgrade. However, meaningful commitment to conflict resolution was disregarded along with social support for the violence victims. The security upgrades have yet to materialise.
The press lapped it up, publishing headlines such as, ‘”Big Step” taken towards peace at hostel’. The public remained mostly disinterested, happy in the myth historically perpetuated by self-serving politicians that only criminals populate hostels. That it is unlikely that the killing, torture and violent eviction of a similar number of Musgrave or Durban North residents would have elicited the same depth of silence proves that racism and class distinctions remain the barometer of our social concern.
To date, an uneasy calm exists at Glebelands, the state has failed to provide the vitally needed remedial social support to which it committed months earlier, and the unpopular councillor remains entrenched by the ANC at a whopping R320 000 monthly personal security cost to ratepayers.
After declaring peace at Glebelands, in early December, the provincial team sprang the KZN Council Against Crime on wartorn KwaMashu Hostel. At the launch Police Minister Nathi Nhleko disingenuously cited the municipality's Qalakabusha Intervention Programme as a roaring success because, ‘by dealing with social ills, you remove the fertile ground which breeds criminals’. Quite true Minister, but it takes a little more commitment than a media soundbyte to deal conclusively with such deeprooted social decay.
According to Mayor Nxumalo, the council's purpose is to ‘end politically motivated crime 'hotspots' around KZN’. What exactly does this mean? At what stage does democratically healthy opposition to the ruling party become 'politically motivated crime'? And after the hasty Glebelands whitewash, is the government really committed to ending hostel violence? Questions were also raised regarding hostel leadership's exclusion from this security initiative as well as the omission of local hostel artists from the Khuzimpi (isiZulu for ‘end the war’) Maskandi Music Festival held at the Princess Magogo Stadium directly after the launch.
Rumoured to have been partly funded by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), the CEO of which has recently been the subject of a R1bn graft probe by the Public Protector, some sources claimed the Khuzimpi Festival was in fact a commemmoration of deceased ANC strongman and former councillor, Khuzimpi Shezi, instead of a literal call for peace. As did Dalton Hostel when nearby Williams Road was renamed Khuzimpi Shezi Road in 2009. KwaMashu Hostel has a large Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) contingent. Reading between the lines, these developments may reveal provincial government's true level of commitment to political pluralism.
But again the broader public failed to raise its hand, and the press strung along with a sunshine slant. Don't mention the war!
And it is not only the state that displays a tendency to dissemble. Some opposition parties deploy the very tactics they criticise in the ruling party. The press is under increasing political pressure to put a positive spin on dirty laundry. NGOs, often woefully disconnected from grassroots reality, fail to bite if feeding from the trough. Academics sometimes spew leftist rhetoric from well-padded trenches on the right. Self-professed espousers of gender equality are exposed as closet Zuma-like chauvinists. Activists preaching socialism think little of spending the equivalent of seven years worth of a Marikana miner's minimum wage on fancy cars. Human rights defenders are revealed as manipulative parasites of the poor, while spiritual leaders' continued failure to speak truth to power remains a deafening omission to the call for social justice. Principles now come with a price tag and honesty has become an unwanted orphan, howling outside the gates of our compromised integrity.
It is said that a nation of sheep deserves a government of wolves. Are we becoming a nation of wolves in sheep’s clothing? If so, what government will we then deserve?
* Vanessa Burger is a Dennis Brutus Community Scholar at the Centre for Civil Society based at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, a provincial member of the Democratic Left Front and Right2Know Campaign and works closely with organisations such as the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, uBunye Bamahostel, the Poor Flat Dwellers Movement and the KZN Violence Monitor.
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