After outcry over the brutal eviction of illegal shack dwellers in Lwandle every state and private agency knows: ‘You may not, ever again, treat people like this’, writes Murray Williams.
Cape Town - It began with two tweets, two 140-chrctr msgs, which read: “I’m watching a mother with a baby tied to her back, scramble underneath a roll of barbed wire, clutching her worldly possessions… trying not to let her baby get gashed, and I’m ashamed to call myself a citizen of this place.”
A handful of photos followed. Very quickly they were seen by a lot of people and the story got what they call “traction”.
In response, initially, the land-owner, the SA National Roads Agency, tried the usual tricks: be defiant. Be dismissive.
When that didn’t work, they tried the blame game.
That didn’t work either.
And on Wednesday the national government climbed in: “What we saw in the media… It is not possible that in the middle of a very cold Western Cape winter, rains and children writing exams, the whole community can be removed in such a brutal way. That concerns me… We are a caring government,” Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu demanded.
“We must be very clear – we do not encourage illegal occupation of land. It is the inhumane way in which children and women are being removed during winter that we are concerned about.”
It had taken 48 hours, but the government finally saw what the rest of us had seen two days earlier.
Okay, great. But where does that leave us?
I’d argue this: we’ll never see evictions like that again.
Yes, illegal shacks will be demolished. But it will no longer be done by teams resembling gangs of thugs.
They will give timeous warning.
They won’t choose midwinter.
They won’t smash and tear – they will dismantle.
If they come across valuable personal belongings, they will place them to one side.
The building materials they can save, they will stack, for collection by those who have saved so desperately to afford them.
Schoolkids and the elderly will be considered.
And when a mother, with a child on her back, is seen trying to crawl beneath a roll of razor wire, terrified, trying to flee with her world’s only possessions, you will stop. You will help her.
Don’t raise the hogwash that “she built here so she knew they were breaking the law”. Who knows how she got there? What her alternatives were at the time? And is it such a crime to shelter your family from the storm? To try to keep them safe after dark?
And what about the child’s rights?
What we saw this week was an assault on our common humanity. And as apartheid taught us, we all end up as damaged as those who are actively oppressed.
The outrage to the scenes from Nomzamo this week were a game-changer, especially after the government’s extraordinary public apology. Remember this is a government which, at times, hasn’t been great at apologising.
But the reaction was so big, so widespread, so colour-blind, so class-blind, that the authorities were forced to pay extremely close attention.
It’s not every day the government publicly chastises one of its key parastatals.
And now every single state and private agency knows: “You may not, ever again, treat people like this.”
“Don’t even bother trying to defend the indefensible.”
It began with half a dozen snaps with an iPhone.
And those clicks went viral to become a deafening roar.
South Africa’s citizenry said, as clearly as you’ll ever hear a nation speak: “Not in our name.”
Or, in the words of an old man: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience (such) oppression of one by another.”
Murray Williams writes a weekly column called “Shooting from the lip” in The Argus every Friday.