A death at the office

2010-07-13 00:00

WELL, I have said it many times — the World Cup was not for sissies. Some months ago, we purchased six LED screens at some quite considerable expense. We had to go out on tender. It took months and months. Before that, there were negotiations with district municipalities about which local municipality would be the recipient of these screens. That took months and months and months.

And what was the intention of these screens? Well, it was twofold really. The first use would be for the screens to serve as countdown clocks to the World Cup. This would create excitement about the impending tournament (how little it takes to get people excited, apparently).

But the second usage would be for legacy. They could be used as information boards, they could be used for advertisements and income generation for the local municipalities, and they could even be used as big screens for mini fan parks for the future.

Now, the tender processes of government are agonisingly slow, and often do not produce the best results. This, in my estimation was one of the best examples of the worst results. A company we had already used, very successfully, for the supply of one LED screen, had to be knocked out of the process, for reasons I forget. But I want to emphasise that we had very good service from it. So now, we had to go with another company. This company has given us the worst service imaginable. But apart from anything else, to actually change anything on these screens is a complete nightmare.

So, the other day, we noticed that even though the screen outside our office was counting up — i.e. this is the 12th day of the World Cup — it was 12 hours ahead and days were changing at midday, instead of midnight.

So, we ranted and we raved, and eventually someone came to fix the clock. On his way out, he dropped dead outside the lift on the first floor. I wasn’t there, but apparently it was very dramatic.

Now, two things happened. After the medical emergency people and the police were called, the news quickly spread that a man had died on the first floor. Black people in the building went into what I can only describe as “funeral mode”. Something deep inside them made them want to sit with the body. To respect the dead person. So there they came and there they gathered. To such an extent that it eventually needed to be announced on the e-mail that the first floor was now out of bounds because there were too many people there.

White people on the other hand (and here I include coloured people as well, as part of the same kind of cultural milieu) fled. If they found themselves in the unfortunate position of the lift doors opening on the first floor, they would suck in their stomachs and hide in a corner of the lift. They wanted to be as far away from the dead body as they possibly could be.

And then, after several hours, the wife of the dead man was brought to the scene. The black guardians of her dead husband were shocked to hear that what she seemed to be most concerned about was that he had been carrying dollars and she was worried that the dollars might have been taken.

So, there was this white dead body lying on the floor outside the lift. The black employees — or several of them — felt in some way culturally bound to come and look after the body and show it respect.

On the other hand, apparently, the man who had died was supposed to be going overseas the next day and had gone to the bank to get dollars. These were apparently in his pocket. But what the black people sitting around, being respectful to the corpse heard — not having that piece of information — was that the wife was concerned that they might have robbed her husband’s corpse.

Who knows why she said it. It could have well been part of the confusion which profound shock brings. It could have been anything. But that is what got heard across the racial divide. (It was reported to me, some time later, I have to say, by a black colleague — and in good humour.)

Such is everyday life, in a country — and with a people — which has effectively been robbed of its humanity. We are bidding farewell to the hundreds of thousands of foreigners who have visited our shores to watch the football. At the same time, there are persistent rumours of threats being made against black African foreigners who live here. We are, all of us, damaged. That is just the truth.

• Michael Worsnip is director: 2010 World Cup Unit, Western Cape Province, Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport. He writes in his personal capacity.

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