Prince Mashele

'Abnormality has become normal'

2009-02-16 12:43

Prince Mashele

The author of this column has no record of boring readers with his personal experiences, unless it is something worth the attention of the reading public. In this specific column, he proceeds from the assumption that readers will relate with his experience and share his concerns.

He thus took the liberty further to assume that he would be forgiven if he told unpleasant, real stories about the kind of services poor South Africans are forced to accept. In other words, how abnormality has become normal in our society.

In December last year, the author took his aunt for medical treatment to Matikwana Hospital at Mukhuhlu in Mpumalanga. They were in that hospital at 06:00, and his aunt was only attended to at 15:30.

Spoiled by the excellent service he receives from his medical aid, the columnist who penned this column was obviously furious and declared the service at Matikwana unacceptable.

But people from around there thought the service there was normal, and they indeed exercised patience. One fellow even said to the angry columnist: "You are better off, your aunt could have been given treatment at 21:00." So, the columnist's aunt was very lucky!

Last weekend, this very columnist was in Mukhuhlu where he was, once again, rendered extremely furious. This time around, streets in that township - including the main road leading to Matikwana Hospital - were riddled with very dangerous potholes. Any reader who doubts this would be advised to drive to Mukhuhlu now!

The plight of the poor

Indeed, it is not worth mentioning that our dear columnist had a tyre burst in Mukhuhlu last weekend. Again, locals simply drive their cars like leisurely tortoises, avoid the potholes they can avoid and sink their wheels into those they helplessly cannot void. No public action; nothing!

Of course, the columnist had witnessed similar and worse situations elsewhere in South Africa, especially in the Eastern Cape. Recently, we have all heard reports that North West has the worst roads in the land. But we have not heard of the people of the platinum province making noise about the state of their roads.

But where are we going with all of this? Three issues are being raised here: 1) the near-collapse of public services; 2) public acceptance of sub-standard services and a sense of helplessness; and 3) the kind of society we would like our children to live in.

Powerless as our columnist is, the only contribution he can make is merely to highlight the plight of his poor aunt, the downtrodden South African who wallows in the misfortune of being on the wrong side of resources.

Who among yourselves would wish to go to any Department of Home Affairs office for services? How many teachers at our public schools would, by choice, send their children to public schools?

Who among yourselves, the great patriots of our country, would like your closest relatives to visit a public hospital for medical care? How many of you live in houses and residential areas protected by private security providers?

Who will defend the people?

Of course, most readers of this column have been and continue to live in a private sub-state. They have private medical aid, private security, private schools, private this and private that. But poor South Africans have no option but to go to Matikwana Hospital to be subjected to the kind of service similar to or worse than what the columnist's aunt had to endure.

Michael Foucault wrote a brilliant book and entitled it Society must be defended. But who will defend the people of Mukhuhlu, of those small and big villages in the Eastern Cape, North West and elsewhere who it seems have come to accept sub-standard service as the norm? Could it be that we all don't care because these villagers are what Frantz Fanon describes as The Wretched of the Earth?

But what explains the silence about such crucial matters of public life? In his seminal book, Democracy Realised, Harvard University social theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger writes:

    ...the educated and almost propertyless middle classes remain the centre of gravity of the polity, the great source of opinion-making and authority in a country where the rich are immobilised by cupidity and the poor distracted by need.

Is Unger's polity not similar to ours? What blinkers our opinion-makers from seeing and what prevents them from sharply raising questions about the rectifiable problems that a majority of our poor people grapple with on a daily basis? Or do we find these issues too mundane for "sophisticated debates"?

Are our rich people not immobilised by cupidity? Could it be that the poor are so embroiled in survivalism that they have no time to defend themselves against councillors who month-in-and-month drive their flashy cars to the ATM smilingly to receive salaries when potholes in Mukhuhlu continue to multiply and burst many more tiers?

Unhappy revolutionaries

These questions lead to yet another tormenting one: what kind of South Africa will our children live in? If we were to use Matikwana Hospital as a useful measuring rod, we would all go to bed seriously worried about the future of our beloved country.

Those labelling themselves revolutionaries would be the unhappiest of us all. But Unger issues a sobering warning: "Today the idea of revolution has become a pretext for its opposite."

Relying on Matikwana to prognosticate, most of us would wish our children could grow up and swell the ranks of the private sub-state we have referred to above; a state where the fortunate have private medical aid, private security, private schools, and another fifty pages of private, private and private!

Indeed, such would be a wish springing from the crudest corner of humanity's evil heart; the kind of heart whose conscience has no regard for the poor.

While grappling with issues relating to the ideal country most of us would wish for our children, we may need to revisit the fundamental question we have left hanging behind us: What explains the silence about such crucial matters of public life?

As the torch continues to hover around in search for clues in this blinding darkness, we might need to kneel before great thinkers who lived long before our episode here on earth. One such thinker is GWF Hegel, who wrote in his Phenomenology of Spirit:

    The scepticism that is directed against the whole range of phenomenal consciousness ... renders the Spirit for the first time competent to examine what truth is.

If Hegel's body were to regain life, and if that great man were to leave the dead and rejoin the living, he would certainly not believe that, since his book was published in 1807, the collective Spirit of South Africans has not made much progress in phenomenal consciousness.

Dismissing dreams

No doubt, he would wonder why our Spirit has not only failed to examine but, more importantly, to tell the truth about the abhorrent conditions the people of Mukhuhlu have come to accept as normal.

Like Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Hegel would be troubled by the extent to which cupidity has eaten into the core of the collective soul of South Africa's rich. Who knows, maybe Hegel would even call upon poor South Africans to rise above survivalism and say, "Never! Never shall we allow councillors to take us for granted and treat us like Fanon's Wretched of the Earth!"

Well, some readers are likely to dismiss this column as dreams from a columnist's esoteric books, and say to the people of Mukhuhlu: "Tough luck! That's your fate! Wait for the second coming when the meek shall inherit the Kingdom of the good Lord"

  • Prince Mashele is Head of Crime, Justice and Politics Programme at the Institute for Security Studies. He writes in his personal capacity.

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