Dear Mr President,
It is with a heavy heart that I have to write this open letter so early in the year 2021. Let me first convey my sincere condolences to yourself personally on the passing of the late minister Jackson Mthembu, who served in your office. We commiserate with his family and his colleagues in government.
Mr President, many South Africans have come to accept the sad reality that ours is one of the most unequal societies in the world, even post democratic dispensation. We live with these structural, socioeconomic disparities in our daily lives, which have become exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is becoming more and more painful and disheartening to witness inequalities and different levels of privilege afforded to individuals by their social status.
We are experiencing inequality, not only in life, sickness and healthcare, but also in death.
What I find extremely repulsive is the manner in which some of your colleagues, politicians and their spin doctors are carrying themselves and rubbing salt into our wounds as ordinary members of the public.
The two main culprits are Minister Fikile Mbalula and the Mpumalanga Premier Refilwe Mtshweni-Tsipane.
Mr President, on Saturday January 16, my uncle, Rangwane Tau Molatoli, was buried in Katlehong township. A working class pensioner who worked for distillers in Germiston, all his life. On the night of January 14, just after midnight, his wife, Mmangwane Mapuleng Molatoli, was picked up by an ambulance and rushed to hospital. She was admitted to a Covid-suspect ward while the tests were being conducted. When my uncle was buried, she was in hospital.
I believe that this day, January 16, was the day that the former MEC of community safety in KwaZulu-Natal, Bheki Ntuli, also passed on. Just to show that the angel of Covid death is visiting all families, irrespective of race, class and creed.
My aunt was an uneducated domestic worker all her life, until she retired due to illness in 2010.
The MEC’s wife, Mr President, was privileged enough to have an ambulance dispatched to enable her to be present at her husband’s funeral. A privilege which my aunt could not have enjoyed.
It is indeed an unimaginable pain for any spouse not to be present at the funeral of their beloved partner. However, what we had been told, repeatedly by yourself, by the Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize, and all the ministers and officials in the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), was that people, especially those whose loved ones had died due to Covid-19-related illnesses, were a high risk, not only to themselves, but to everyone around them and - by law - they were expected to isolate for at least 14 days.
While my family was still coming to terms with the trauma of my aunt’s absence at the funeral, we were devastated to receive news that she had also succumbed on the morning of January 20, barely four days after her husband was buried. Her funeral was held on Tuesday January 26.
Mr President, I know for certain that mine is among scores of families that have experienced multiple tragedies of losing more than one family member as a result of Covid. We are not special.
However, what is increasingly becoming a loud cry across the nation is the differential treatment and manner in which the regulations and laws are applied to the different strata of society. This, I have to say, is totally unbecoming, unfair, and unjust.
One would imagine that when there is an outcry from the public about the unfair special treatment received by politicians and members of the elite class, there would be some kind of genuine acknowledgement of the unfairness. Instead what we got from Mbalula was the most infuriating sheer arrogance and dismissal of genuine questions and concerns, as to why Mrs Ntuli was given permission to attend the funeral - in an open ambulance - while she was a Covid patient. The issue is not even so much whether the ambulance was open or closed, it is just the special privilege to which some in society are entitled.
Mbalula said “…people must stop to peddle things that are unnecessary, the family is going through tough times and we need to give them their privacy.” Which family is not going through tough times right now, Mr President?
Many families have gone through the immeasurable pain of not being allowed to visit their sick in hospital, not being able to view their deceased, coffins being wrapped in clinging plastic and funerals happening under very sad, lonely, strict regulations.
We then observe on national television, with absolute horror and dismay, the premier of Mpumalanga prancing around without wearing a mask in public at the funeral of Mthembu, where you were also present. We saw the caskets of the late MEC and minister also not being wrapped in plastic. The nursing sister who attended to the minister shared information that his wife visited him and brought him food in hospital.
This was not the first time that Mbalula has been dismissive and defensive when such concerns are raised. He was equally arrogant during the first lockdown when regulations were not observed at the funeral of Ntate Andrew Mlangeni.
What is even more exasperating, are the ludicrous statements of “apology” that we are usually subjected to, like the one issued by the MEC of Mpumalanga, that her mask had fallen off and she did not feel it.
How insulting is that to our collective intelligence as the nation?
In the subsequent interviews in the media, the premier’s spokesperson, Sibongile Mkami-Mpolweni, was in a league of her own with absurdity and arrogance.
What pains me is that in my last telephonic conversation with my aunt, imploring her that they should have a small funeral for my uncle, have a short prayer and simply proceed to the cemetery, her response was that “Re tlamehile ho latela molao Dikeledi” – “In any case, we have to abide by the law and regulations”.
Perhaps what should happen, Mr President, is that you and your Cabinet must just consider declaring special laws and regulations for elites and your fellow politicians in the ANC, and different ones to govern us, ordinary citizens.
In that way we will stop being under the illusion that we are all equal before the law and all committed to combatting this pandemic.
Retired former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, reflecting in his book All Rise, about his experience of serving as an arbitrator in the Life Esidimeni saga, where 144 mental health patients died and many others went missing due to neglect and torturous conditions when government officials terminated the Life Esidimeni contract and moved them to unsuitable NGOs, states clearly what the Constitution of the country expects of elected government officials:
“The Constitution goes further to impose overarching duties on wielders of public power. As elected office-bearers and so, too, all those in the public service, as they go about their duties, they must first and foremost be faithful to the law. They must act within the strictures of the law and eschew unlawfulness. They may not elevate their personal or arbitrary or political or other preferences above or in a breach of binding law. That is a bare minimum of the constitutional tenet of the rule of law. Absent a respect for the law, we head down the slippery slope of disorder and anarchy. The weak, poor and vulnerable will bend in oppression while the powerful and ruling elite minister to their needs and do as they please.”
Since no one has been jailed for the deaths of Esidimeni victims to date, government officials and politicians continue to spit in our faces because they know nothing will happen to them.
What a travesty of justice.
Molatoli is a social justice activist and director in Bamboo Seeds Communications