Ode to an unimportant man

I write this in honour of Alpheus Molefe, a man who was born in Meadowlands, Soweto, 43 years ago. He was shot and killed by criminals outside the township of Vosloorus on Friday November 6.

Alpheus was our senior logistics officer—a fancy title for a simple but critical position: he drove our company vehicle.

A working-class African man who had just bought a house and a modest car—and was studying for a university degree—Alpheus is survived by his wife of 16 years, Louisa, and his 13-year-old daughter, Princess.

Poor people who die at the hands of criminals are too many and too unimportant to warrant commentary or news reporting.

But it matters to me and to those of us who knew, loved and respected Alpheus, with his bright smile and quirky strut. In a dark and litter-strewn street in Zonkesizwe, he lay dying on Friday night, shot by a man who had calmly pulled the trigger and got back into his car and drove away as if he had just stopped to ask directions.

In these times when only those who make deals, drive flashy cars and stay at expensive hotels seem to count, we think of some jobs as being better than others.

But Alpheus carried himself like a man who knew how much he mattered. He drove our office vehicle, but that was a small part of what he did for us.

He was our ambassador—a smiling face welcoming weary staff from long trips, or greeting wary visitors worried about the crime in South Africa, telling them not to worry, they were safe in his hands.

In the past few days we have received an outpouring of messages from people across the world who were devastated by the news of his violent death.

Many recalled how on numerous occasions he waited at the airport until well past midnight when he should have been at home with Louisa and their little Princess.

Always there was a warm smile: ‘How was your journey?” he would ask. And always, despite having never flown in his life, he would ask: ‘Did you have turbulence?” I promised him that we would fly him somewhere one day. It is a promise that swings lifelessly in the wind.

Like many black South Africans I am painfully aware of the racial nature of discussions about crime in this country.

Indeed, I have rolled my eyes on many occasions, overhearing the conversations of middle-class whites about how crime is spiralling out of control.

There is a dance that is played with words here, a coded discussion about race: blacks are criminals and whites are their victims, and the incompetent blacks at the top either don’t care what’s happening because whites are the victims, or they do care because they can see it is affecting the townships, but are helpless because of their fundamental ineptitude.

I have found myself downplaying crime on a number of occasions to resist playing into this unspoken code.

The day that Alpheus died I realised that we need to speak more truthfully. The day that Alpheus died, my already tenuous belief in the future of this country crumbled. Granted, it had been a tough week.

Alpheus died on Friday night and I heard the shocking news at 6.30am on Saturday. Two days earlier, on Thursday morning, I had run crying out of the office, racing home after getting a call from my husband: our 18-month-old baby and the woman who looks after her had been taking a walk when they were held up at gunpoint.

The assailant had looked the nanny in the eye, casually flicking his gaze over the baby, and he had said: ‘Give me your cellphone or I will kill you.”

A few months ago a man with a knife had tried the same trick on her—also in the presence of the baby. So, this time, she had nothing to give—she leaves the phone at home even when she is walking in our leafy suburban neighbourhood.

In a panic she pushed the pram into the middle of the road and tried to flag down a passing motorist. An oncoming car slowed down to take in the scene but the driver decided that he was not going to help a woman in distress with a baby.

What has happened to us?

Black and white, we are a nation that has lost the sense of humanity that I always believed would be our saving grace.

So why do I tell these stories?

These days anyone who is critical of the leadership of the ANC is subject to violently abusive language.

Our words have become as barbed as bullets, the rage of our publicity hungry leadership is as violent as the deeds of the criminals they decry. Our leaders are no longer measured and nuanced, no longer exemplary.

So, rather than take on real issues of substance and engage in meaningful debates, our new breed of politicians (many of them carryovers from the Mandela and Mbeki eras, but with a new style of confrontation, and with a worrying acceptance of aggression) chooses to attack rather than to discuss.

So, for the record, I want to be clear that these are not the disgruntled mutterings of a frustrated Cope member. I am a dyed-in-the-wool ANC member who has lived my life in pursuance of the objectives of the African National Congress.

I was born into the ANC and I grew up believing in this country as much as anyone. In my own small ways I have sought to contribute to the struggle for dignity in South Africa.

I have been a card-carrying member of the ANC, working on establishing a new branch structure in Pretoria in the mid-1990s.

I have worked in a community clinic in Diepsloot, disappearing into the shadows of Dainfern every day when many of my middle-class peers were wondering what I was doing going in and out of a township so rife with violence and despair when I didn’t have to.

I say this not to illustrate that I am special—I believe this story is common among many politically conscious South Africans in their 30s and 40s; I say it to illustrate the severity of my crisis of confidence in this nation.

When I declare that I have lost faith in the current leadership, I say so with deep equivocation—I am almost afraid to say this aloud.

Yet I would be a fool to believe that the national leadership that President Jacob Zuma has put in place to sort out the police and to protect communities from the type of crime that claimed Alpheus’s life is up to the challenge.

The analysts who have followed Bheki Cele’s progress in KwaZulu-Natal may have good things to say about him, but I find it hard to fathom how a man who embodies the qualities of gangsterism—the fancy clothes and flashy lifestyle—could serve as a credible head of police.

In the wake of the Selebi case I find it stunning that the president could appoint a man who dresses like a pimp—and who shamelessly tells interviewers that he wears Jimmy Choo shoes—as our police chief.

In a nation in which young black boys see thugs in BMWs and blinged-out attire as the decision-makers in their communities, it is shocking that we would hire a police chief who reflects in his demeanour the very traits we wish to discourage in our communities.

In Nathi Mthethwa we have a police minister who has been twice embroiled in spectacularly arrogant episodes of mismanaging public funds.

In the middle of a national crime crisis and social protests in poor communities, that are at root about poverty in the face of plenty, it seems implausible we would elect to put in place as a leader a man who flaunts his privilege in the faces of the many South Africans who have nothing.

A postscript. Minutes after escaping their assailant, my daughter and our nanny returned safely home.

Thankfully someone else stopped on the street to help them and their assailant hopped into a waiting car and fled the scene. When they got home, the baby, who had been silent while the drama played itself out, threw up in distress.

For the nanny—for whom it was the least violent of many incidents she has survived (these include a stabbing that punctured her lung 10 years ago, a gun placed against her head a few years later, and hospitalisation following a blow to the head from her mother as a teenager)—it has been a more difficult week.

At Alpheus’s small house in Vosloorus, we gathered on a grey Saturday afternoon to offer our condolences to his wife. She recounted how angry she had been at him the day before he died.

He had refused to take her to work—he was on study leave and had an exam to write later that day. When she got into Johannesburg that morning, she was mugged—they took her bag, her phone, the usual.

A day later, her anger had dissipated. A bigger crime had transpired. Her husband lay dead in a government mortuary.

She sat calmly, clearly still in shock. His daughter, with a composure that belied her 13 years, spoke for all of us. ‘How are you,” we asked, ‘Outside I am okay, but inside I am broken.”

Sisonke Msimang is the executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. She writes in her personal capacity

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