Dirty war

2013-06-10 10:00

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Some people are beginning to resort to foul tactics to fight for the basic rights they were promised.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Czech novelist Milan Kundera tells the story of the capture of Stalin’s son, Yakov, by German soldiers during World War 2.

Yakov was then put in a cell with British soldiers, who constantly complained about the stench of his faeces.

Yakov could not accept the humiliation because he was, after all, the son of the most powerful man in the world. He felt a simultaneous sense of privilege and rejection – and killed himself by hurling his body at the prison’s electric fence.

Kundera concludes that “no one felt more concretely than Yakov how interchangeable opposites are, how short the step from one pole of human existence to the other”.

Over the past 20 years, black people have moved from the exhilaration of freedom to the dejection that comes with having to sit with buckets full of faeces in their homes because of a lack of proper sanitation facilities.

If anything, this whole state of affairs is a metaphor for how farcical – or is it “faececal” – the past two decades have been for the majority of black people in SA.

Kundera also wrote that the swing from exhilaration to dejection creates a void in people’s lives and sense of themselves. “If rejection and privilege are one and the same?.?.?.?then human existence loses its dimensions and becomes unbearably light.” It is this “unbearable lightness of being” that leads to the shocking actions we see in our communities.

People who have been treated inhumanely begin to act in dehumanising ways. In The Ties That Bind, the late Bernard Magubane described this phenomenon as “what the oppressed learnt from their oppressor is a distortion of themselves.”

People forced to live with faeces in their living rooms will see nothing wrong with throwing that faeces in the hallowed halls of Parliament, as if to say, in the words of Shakespeare’s Caliban: “You taught me language, and my profit on it is I know how to curse.”

And was it not Vladimir Lenin who implored the communists to copy the barbarism of the capitalists by barbarous methods?

The people are throwing back what the politicians are throwing at them.

That is why the increasingly violent protests do not discriminate between political parties.

Dehumanisation is dehumanisation, whether it is at the hands of your own elites or those of the opposition parties.

In short, we are witnessing the unravelling of a political and development culture that treats people as consumers, not humans.

It’s a perfect, if tragic, metaphor for technocracy – a way of thinking about development in terms of numbers, not empowerment.

A bureaucrat is given a target to chase, and does not bother to think what else might be needed to go with it, including houses that must go with toilets.

I am sure there are many arguments about how difficult it would be to bring water reticulation systems into some of these areas.

That argument will have credibility if it is accompanied by demonstrable efforts to desegregate the spatial geography of this country.

The National Planning Commission and the human settlements department have proclaimed racial integration of our spatial geography as a national priority.

I will believe it when I see it, given the mind-set that informs all of our public policies – that black folks deserve less, from housing and sanitation to atrocious education for our children.

This mind-set goes back to the 1990s and became the model for a development model that placed black people on the margins of cities, out of sight and out of mind, huddled like sardines in segregated spaces while vast amounts of land lie vacant or underutilised across highways.

A girl sits on an unenclosed toilet in Makhaza, Khayelitsha. Service-delivery protests in Western Cape took an ugly turn this week. Picture: Steve Kretzmann/West Cape news

And now the proverbial excrement is hitting the fan – literally and figuratively – and everybody acts surprised.

If the “faececal” state of affairs does not constitute a great betrayal, then let us all agree there were no ideals to be betrayed in the first place, and the whole struggle thing was a fruitless exercise, especially for those who have to eat, live and sleep with buckets of faeces in their tiny ramshackle rooms.

In the interim, the men and women of the race – their politicians and intellectuals – find themselves drawn into unedifying public discussions about faeces.

How else to do you describe this foray into the excremental world? It’s an indication of the times that things considered private matters for the rest of humanity – from

leaders’ private parts to citizens’ faeces – have become public discourse in the black world, under a black-led government.

But then again the public discourse on faeces is a playing out of what Kundera calls “kitsch” – a German word whose meaning is the political elite’s denial of unpalatable reality.

By bringing faeces to the hallowed halls of Parliament, the “great unwashed” broke through the denialism of the elite to say all is not well in the state of Denmark. What they did is awful, but no less awful than the conditions of their existence.

As we prepare ourselves for next year’s general elections, we might as well prepare ourselves for a great deal of stink in the air as the governing party and the opposition parties outdo each other in the excrement stakes.

That is how debased we have all become, thanks to the present generation of leaders.

I shudder to think that future generations will condemn us for having left them the unbearable irony of privilege and rejection – in a freedom that comes with a bucketful of faeces.

»?Mangcu is the author of Biko: A Biography, which has been short-listed for the Media24 Recht Malan Prize and the 2013 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award for nonfiction

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