Johannesburg - When the first news reports about faeces flingers were aired, decent South Africans recoiled and condemned the young people at the centre of what unquestionably was considered shameful.
Initially, it was comical yet repulsive. Western Cape Premier Helen Zille was addressing members of the community in Khayelitsha when she heard a crowd singing in Xhosa outside the community hall she was in and started dancing. Jovial, energetic person that she is, she started singing too, it was reported. “That is a nice song,” she said.
But unbeknown to her, the words used in the song meant Zille is a witch, the witch rides a baboon.
It was only when she came out of the hall that she realised how bad the situation was.
Without even thinking twice, we all condemned them.
Their actions are not to be countenanced, we thought. Protesting had been redefined – and we were displeased. We had never imagined people could stoop this low.
After all, the great democratic country we live in allows people to protest about almost everything as long as they don’t harm others, right?
The poo protesters then took their raw sewage to the trains, Cape Town City Hall and the legislature. It was an affront to our sensibilities.
This week, though, the flingers made their toilet war everybody’s business when they dumped their liquefied faeces at Cape Town International Airport. “What cheek,” we protested. “Who does that?”
Collectively, we wondered what goes on in the mind of young men sitting in a car with faeces, driving several kilometres, stopping at robots, before disgusting all of us with their protest.
In our middle-class existence, we questioned if these people have an appreciation of the damage they are doing to Brand SA, and to our need to woo investors, some of whom will be here this weekend to listen to what US President Barack Obama has to say about Africa. This time, to our minds, these anarchists went too far.
Well, they went too far because their problem has now become ours. It is fine when they hurl their s*** at politicians.
Even the ANC, the party of the poor and voiceless, could not contain its disenchantment.
“These actions paint a negative picture of our country and make a mockery of South Africa in the eyes of the international community. Further, these actions pose a health hazard to the people involved and upon the people they target,” it said.
“It boggles the mind that these individuals have the audacity to transport human waste in public and private vehicles, negligent and dismissive of the dangers posed.”
But that is quite rich, coming from people in air-conditioned offices, is it not? If you are forced to live with the faeces in your home, day and night, how is the faeces any more dangerous to you when you transport it to your chosen destination?
In truth, we should not feign surprise at these below-the-belt tactics. Isn’t it convenient merely to blurt out, “We understand their grievances, but disagree with the tactic”? Do we really understand their grievances? Or would we just prefer them to be civil, to behave in an acceptable way, to submit petitions and stage peaceful marches, not to disturb our wonderful, democratically protected existence?
The thing is this: when people feel their choices are being taken away; when they feel their lives have been rendered abnormal; when they think they will not be free until something drastic is done, then they will act in ways that are unexpected, because startling methods are often effective.
Some of these faeces flingers are patient people. Many of us who live comfortably in cities around this country, who give our children private education and private health care, who relish low-GI and free-range food, could hardly spend a day with toilets full of faeces in our houses – and we shouldn’t have to. Yet we expect others to accept this as a normal part of their lives.
When they wake up, their houses stink. When they have breakfast, they smell raw sewage. Do we, in fact, understand what these people go through? When they chop onions, tomatoes and carrots or sprinkle spices on their meat, the smell of faeces remains in their RDP houses.
When their children do homework after school, when they eat supper, the foul smell is with them. When they return home tired, they feel they might choke on the stench. Now, how much of that could you take?
Sitting in our comfortable offices, we pass judgement. We act as if we are better guarantors of freedom and civilisation. “This is barbaric,” we scream. “It makes a mockery of our country.” Yeah, try to spend a week in their houses and see if you would still want to make those sorts of statements.
Should there be no water for longer than 24 hours in the north of Joburg, there would be a national crisis. Yet others must live with their poo for years and be expected to be civil in their protest? Hypocrites!
Steve Biko might have meant it literally when he wrote this about death: “You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can’t care anyway.”
When you live a life like the one we’ve just laid out, something in you dies. You become shameless. You don’t care. You become too radicalised.
Ever wondered what morphs people, normal respectable beings, into suicide bombers? We make people feel they have nothing more to lose. No dignity to lose. For you can’t lose it if you feel you don’t have it.
Alive and proud, as Biko puts it, or dead without a care, literally or figuratively.
All manner of things considered unthinkable become options, opportunities. The airport becomes a terrain of struggle. Images of investors and high-profile people with noses up, harassed by the smell you know so well, become a source of perverse pleasure. Make them as uncomfortable as your life is. The more members of high society talk, express their outrage about it, the more, in a twisted kind of way, you believe your plight might be addressed – before everybody irritates you with celebrations of 20 years of freedom.
These people have waited for years to have their dignity restored. They waited for a better life for all. They are not asking for croissants for breakfast or free food. No. They just want respectable ablution facilities. Is that too much to ask, Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille and Zille? They have raised their concerns peacefully. They were ignored.
They are surprised that their condition is not a priority.
The ANC, of all parties, should feel their pain. The ANC knows what it means to be ignored, to protest peacefully without results. The armed struggle was born of this. When the voiceless are ignored and stripped of dignity, they rise up. It’s simple logic. They make their problem other people’s problem.
This is how the Cape Town International Airport poo protest must be understood.
Cries about the harm to investment do not make sense to these protesters. Should the ANC have listened to apartheid beneficiaries’ cries that the bombs against the country’s strategic assets would affect investment flows to the country? Those investments did not benefit the ANC and the oppressed black majority, in the same way that the current cries about airport poo impacting on investment are irrelevant to those who must live with their poo. Different eras, true. But the principle remains.
In the end, to the extent that faeces flingers break the law, they must be arrested. But if we are honest, we must take a good look before we flush that toilet and ask ourselves how long we could remain civil without an option to flush. When we have answered that question, we can step up, have our say. Otherwise, we’re hypocrites, just like De Lille, Zille and the ANC.
* Makhudu Sefara is the editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.