We all shat on this child’s dignity

It is impossible for me to imagine the lifelong pain of thinking daily about your child’s lifeless little body in a pit latrine, only his hand sticking out, a corpse drenched in the haunting, choking stench of faeces.

That is the trauma Michael Komape’s family has to live with for the rest of their lives. Almost four years ago, their little five-year-old son fell into a pit toilet at a school in a village outside Polokwane.

His dad’s testimony this week in the civil case that is currently underway told of the callous attempts by teachers, the school governing body and the leadership of the school to keep the story quiet, including trying to delete photographic evidence of the pit toilets.

The department of basic education, in turn, has shamefully, until now, refused to take moral and legal responsibility for the school’s dilapidated infrastructure, opposing the civil case with no regard for how it is, unacceptably, reinscribing pain on the bodies and psyches of the Komape family. They could not even bring themselves to apologise.

I think of this story as the country grapples with more dominant news items that focus on the state capture storyline, and with the work of our brilliant investigative journalists who continue to expose the rot at the heart of our state that accounts for why we do not focus on alleviating poverty, creating jobs and growing the economy so that we may become a more just and substantively equal society.

Little Michael’s story is the ultimate expression of what state capture means. Our lame and uncaring president, Jacob Zuma, this week jeered at the nation, denying that state capture is real or, if it is real, denying that is a big deal. He sees it as a propagandistic tool of haters. This, of course, is deliberate and tired misdirection. No one falls for it.

If we are guilty of underdescribing state capture in the media, it is perhaps a guilt that lies in our failure to draw a blunt connection between political jargon and real human beings. We routinely make the same mistake in our general reporting on corruption. We need simpler and more visceral depictions of the meaning of corruption and the opportunities it costs, including the grandest scale of corruption, which is all that state capture picks out.

Michael Komape died because of state capture. Michael, a poor black rural child, is the most invisible child in our society. He is the child whose inherent self-worth is trampled on by an uncaring state filled with men and women who steal with gay abandon, and who sell the country to the highest dodgy bidders.

Michael Komape died because of poverty. That, too, is a consequence of state capture. There cannot be adequate budgeting — or oversight of monies already earmarked — for infrastructure development in rural areas if the most powerful civil servants and their political masters, as well as their keepers in the private sector, erode the state’s capacity to deliver proper schools to the poor that allow them to be educated in buildings that are fit for persons who have inherent dignity.

Michael Komape died because of inequality. Almost every single reader of this column has never used a pit toilet. Those who still use pit toilets, in turn, are economically marginalised and objects of social policy rather than cocreators of a more just society. The villagers outside Polokwane live in a very different South Africa to the South Africa of Mail & Guardian readers or the South Africa of 702 and Cape Talk listeners.

And that is why the appropriate lens to use to make complete sense of Michael’s death isn’t the lens through which we only do statecentric analysis. Sure, the state should be legally and morally hammered for its failures and callousness. But, as privileged citizens on the cushy side of the inequality divide, we all too often show woefully little, if any, level of empathy for poor and indigent South Africans.

It is left to a handful of brilliant civil society organisations and social justice litigators, such as Section27, to fight for the right to dignity of the most vulnerable in society to be affirmed.

All of us should learn to walk the talk when it comes to cross-class solidarity rather than activating our agency only when matters of narrow self-interest are at stake. Our fate, as I have argued before, is tied up with that of the poor.

Dignity, equality and freedom are the three foundational values of our Constitution. All three matters individually — and the conceptual relationships between them — are tricky, as our jurisprudence demonstrates. They are often defined, for example, with near-unavoidable circularity in terms of one another by our Constitutional Court judges.

However, there can be little doubt, I think, that dignity is the pre-eminent value. It refers to the inherent self-worth each of us has just by virtue of being human. In turn, the realisation of the right to proper sanitation is the ultimate test of whether a state respects someone’s inherent self-worth.

Michael Komape died because our society does not recognise the inherent self-worth of the poor.

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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