Department of homeland brutality

It is not the vast potholes outside the department of home affairs in Randburg that lie in wait for me, nor the ad hoc middle men and women in the selfsame cul de sac whom I initially shied from, having faith both in my ability to queue and the slow rumbling of home affairs machinery. Nor was it the years now of waiting for what is known in the business as a vault birth certificate: the only vault I know of is the one I feel fit for.

And heartsore I still am by the death of Bongekile Mkhize (24), who in May, exhausted by five years of waiting for an ID document, left a suicide note saying that she was going to a place where an ID would not be needed.

But it was when I read of the death a few weeks ago of Carol Ann Gotbaum, née Stiger, originally from Cape Town, that I thought, fuck the state. Really and truly, fuck the idea of the state.

A mother of three and a wife, Gotbaum was on her way from her home in New York to a rehab centre in Tucson. Due to changed flights in Phoenix, she missed the connection and flipped out. The US department of homeland security stepped in, subdued Gotbaum, shackled her and put her in a holding cell. On the airport’s security video, the whole incident is there to see, but we don’t hear Gotbaum screaming, ”I’m not a terrorist, I’m not a terrorist.” Some time later she was found dead, with the shackles around her neck.

My father was a self-taught man. An autodidact who issued late night diktats for my brother and I to decamp to the kitchen table and arrange salt and pepper mounds as the Appian Way, the Coliseum, Hadrian’s Wall or messily, Alexander’s set-piece battles.

Of our two Yorkshire terriers, the one with the festive quiff was Tarquin, the fifth king of Rome. My father spoke so often (and fondly) of Tarquin during my very early years, that I thought he was a helpful neighbour.

And then my father would drive us crazy bored mad with his Cicero and his Cicero and his Cicero. And the idea of the res publica and res populi.

It is only now, years after my father’s death that I look up the quotation from Cicero:

”Est igitur, inquit Africanus, res publica res populi, populus autem non omnis hominum coetus quoquo modo congregatus, sed coetus multitudinis iuris consensu et utilitatis communione sociatus.” (Cicero, De Republica, I, 25, 39)

Therefore, said Africanus, the res publica is the res populi; however, a people is not just any collection of humans brought together just any old way, but a congregation of a large number of people joined by an agreement in respect to justice and a partnership for the common good.

It is childish I know and I should be well past the years of swearing at authority, but these deaths break my heart. In this res publica, this state we’re in, and on the eve of choosing a new leader for our governing party, I ask the politicians, civil servants, party workers, the rank and file and the grassroots to spare a thought for Mkhize and Gotbaum, both sensitive people, in trouble and trying to get things sorted, who assumed that the state was on their side.

At least here in this state, can we put Batho Pele first?

Maggie Davey is publishing director at Jacana Media. She writes in her personal capacity

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