Bheki Cele and his ilk are fermenting a hangover nobody wants

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Bheki Cele and his ilk are fermenting a hangover nobody wants

President Cyril Ramaphosa must own the dastardly scenes that have unfolded in townships in recent days

Columnist
Police instruct a man to lie, face down, as the army patrols the streets during lockdown.
BRING THEM TO THEIR KNEES Police instruct a man to lie, face down, as the army patrols the streets during lockdown.
Image: Alon Skuy

SA is fermenting. Locked in the still of our suddenly concentrated lives, exposed to the heat of the daily news, stewing in our fears, we are starting to sweat an entirely new type of moonshine, threatening an entirely new type of hangover.

The chemistry of lockdown mampoer will no doubt be explained in years to come by psychologists and economics, but right now you don’t need to be an expert to see its effects.

On Monday, for example, I found myself flooded with nostalgia when I read about a government employee who had handed R32m in contracts to her brother’s company. It was the mampoer talking, of course, but my longing for the good old days of a few weeks ago felt pretty real.

It’s why I’m trying not to judge the people in my neighbourhood who have taken to blasting music, recorded and live, at everyone within earshot. I now understand that they’re just wasted on Corona and are trying to cheer us all up, much as a dog might bring you a large piece of seaweed because it knows you like getting presents.

Indeed, there seems to be no way of telling how South Africans will react to the fermentation process. Some want to volunteer or sew face masks, or donate money, or do online performances. Others are still insisting that this is the flu and that what is happening in Italy is normal for this time of year. A few, urgently sharing conspiracy theories about 5G and economic sabotage, are a useful reminder that being able to read is not the same thing as being literate.

Then again, most of the conspiracies I’m seeing all over social media aren’t really about facts. Oh, they appeal to them, and pretend to reveal them, and mock anyone who challenges them. But if you find yourself appalled by fake news in the coming weeks, and deeply disappointed in friends who share it, perhaps it might be worth thinking about conspiracies not as false claims, but as emotional support animals for frightened people who don’t know what to read or what to think.

Then again, most of the conspiracies I’m seeing all over social media aren’t really about facts.

When someone takes to Facebook to announce: “China made this in a lab to sabotage Donald Trump!”, try to remember that what they’re really saying is: “I am extremely anxious. Huge systems seem to be grinding to a halt or cracking. I am worried about my future. I hope that if I get Covid-19 I won’t get horrifyingly sick, but I don’t know, and nobody else seems to either. And so, to ease that anxiety, I take solace in telling myself that people made the coronavirus to harm other people, and that old systems of realpolitik and greed and subterfuge are still continuing, because this means that people are still in control of my life.”

To be fair, people are still in control of many aspects of their lives, but the lockdown mampoer has brought out the best and worst in them, too. Health minister Zweli Mkhize seems to have had some of the ANC burnt off him by the fermentation process and is now leading and communicating with exceptional clarity and skill. Others have been dismal: as Bheki Cele strutted and threatened last week, you could see him tasting kragdadigheid with the relish of a patient at a sanatorium taking a first, illicit drag on a smuggled cigar.

Cele’s pompous posturing was a taste of the attitude unleashed on the townships since then, but in fairness, the alarming scenes unfolding on social media must be owned by President Cyril Ramaphosa. It is essential to condemn Cele and defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula when we read about police sjamboking homeless people in Hillbrow (why are police even issued sjamboks?) or see footage of soldiers brutalising civilians, or police using a water cannon on shoppers, or revealing a total ignorance of the lockdown regulations by yelling at people to leave their front yards and go inside their houses. But the bottom line is that the army and the police are the state’s crudest manifestation of physical power, and when you order a hammer to do the work of a scalpel, or the work of a government that has failed to house people in habitable homes, the results will always by ugly and bloody. And these results were guaranteed as soon as Ramaphosa and his team came to the conclusion that you can separate and isolate people who have to use communal toilets and who live six to a room.

There are more than two more weeks of this, and then, almost certainly, a couple more. We will continue to stew. But Cele and his ilk must be reined in now or fermentation will turn to fomentation. And that’s a hangover nobody wants.

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