Illustrative image – Source: Michael Komape (Image: Section 27)
The way South African society treats its children – as evidenced by its response to the death of Michael Komape – reveals the image of a country with a miserable soul.
Mark Tomlinson is Co-Director of the Institute for Life Course Health Research in the Department of Global Health, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Stellenbosch.
“There can be no sharper revelation of the soul of a society than the way it treats its children.” (Nelson Mandela, 1995)
“Our first task, our first job: to take care of our children. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get any good. (Barack Obama, 2012)
A few years ago, a colleague and I were sitting in our conference room waiting for a meeting to start. She turned to me and asked if I had read about the nine-year-old girl who had been raped and her body set on fire. I said no, but I felt completely mortified by the horror of it. She then asked me if I had heard that the man who had been arrested for the crime smiled as he walked out of court. I had heard about it – but I had to correct it. The man with the smile was a different man, the one who had actually buried his 18-month-old child alive.
These are just two of the horror stories we face on a daily basis in South Africa. Sometimes it feels like every new horror cries out to surpass the ones that came before it in a gruesome competition. If we haven’t gone numb, unable to take the horror, or just stopped noticing, who are we who stay with us?
For me it was the Michael Komape story. Michael was the five-year-old boy from Chebeng Village in Limpopo who in 2014 used his school bathroom. The broken pit latrine he was using was not strong enough to support the weight of his small body and he fell into the human excrement pit and drowned. It took four hours to recover his body.
One of my memories from that time was that his mother had spent some of those hours on top of that latrine waiting for him to be rescued. As appalling as his death was, in the landscape of South African horrors, for many it was just another dreadful story.
For me, however, it was never just that. I thought so much about his terror and the desperation of his parents as they fought for years to get reparations and to make sure those responsible were found guilty. His family managed to get repairs, but certainly not for anyone to shoulder the guilt.
On August 5, 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed Dikeledi Magadzi Deputy Minister of Water and Sanitation. I must have blinked twice.
Surely that was a dark and very bad joke? Dikeledi Magadzi? Water and sanitation ?
During the time of the Limpopo MEC for Education, she was asked about the death of Michael Komape in a now infamous interview a few months after the incident. She responded impatiently, with a little bit of vitriol, and without the slightest trace of attention or empathy, that she was not the “toilet boy”, that what had happened was God’s will and that she was not God.
I like to think that in many societies the impertinence of his response would immediately have relegated him to political junk – but not in South Africa. Here, she climbs the promotion ladder and becomes deputy minister of water and sanitation in 2021. The same ministry responsible for this pit latrine in which Michael Komape died.
But maybe I’m being too harsh, and one of the legacies of his time at Limpopo is that the pit latrine problem has been solved? You know where I’m going with this.
In August 2021 Public interest law firm Article 27 sued the Minister of Basic Education and the Limpopo Ministry of Education, arguing that there were 1,489 pit toilets on school premises in the province and that government officials had stated that “pit toilets in Limpopo will only become a thing of the past in 2030”- perhaps an interesting choice of a year, given the National development plan.
That said, the main source of my despair is not the Limpopo Education Department, but rather what our response to Michael’s death reveals about us and the way we treat our children. I would argue that we systematically have prejudices against children – what is called “childishness”.“.
To my knowledge, the word childish was written by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl in her book Childism: fight against prejudices against children.
Her book speaks openly about what she sees as deep prejudice and negative attitudes towards children in the United States. She goes so far as to say that childism should be treated as seriously as racism and sexism. More recently, its argument has been extended to explore how children have been treated in our response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and in this context, childishness is described as a “system of age discrimination and oppression against children”.
When in 2015 then South African President Jacob Zuma said teenage mothers and fathers should have their newborns removed and sent to Robben Island to finish school before seeing their babies again. children, he revealed his childishness.
When the Treasury pours tens of billions into an inefficient and struggling airline instead of replacing thousands of dangerous pit latrines, it is spreading its childishness. When the authorities responsible for administering former President Nelson Mandela’s flagship school feeding program steal funds year after year, they show their venality and unbridled greed, but also their childishness.
When we South Africans “beat” our children to make them follow our diktats and almost unanimously support corporal punishment in schools, we are guilty of childishness.
When hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on Zuma’s house and hearth in Nkandla during the dark years of his presidency – taxpayer money ironically spent before Michael’s death – we show our childishness.
When we try to criminalize kissing and cuddling between consenting children under the age of 16 – as we tried about 12 years ago – we are exposing our childishness.
I have no doubt that most of us deeply love our own children and, of course, love the children of our family members, and even the children we know and who are visible to us. However, I remain convinced that we are in some way capable of doing the same for all the children in our country, especially the poor and invisible children. The evidence I see tells me no.
If we don’t care enough about fixing the pit latrines in Limpopo schools, I’m afraid we won’t get any good. And the image of our soul that this lays bare is particularly miserable. SM / MC