Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: GCIS
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: GCIS

Last week, many South Africans pondered two perhaps unanswerable questions: "What is justice?" and "Why is there no yeast in Woolworths?"

The one is a deeply philosophical conundrum, and let’s be frank: can we ever really know? But we should, I think, take a stab at the other, working out what constitutes justice in our frustrating country, and how the term applies differently to different people.

There has been the usual wildly oscillating range of reactions to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s censuring of communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. To remind you of the story, in case you’ve already forgotten it in the heady whirl of pandemic content, Ndabeni-Abrahams flouted lockdown regulations and popped in to chow down with Mduduzi Manana, our former deputy minister of higher education & training and the proud holder of a conviction on three counts of assault on women.

Manana, displaying the same lack of finesse that we assume drove the style choices in his cookie cutter McMansion (check it out on YouTube), Instagrammed a picture of the meal.

To cut a long story into a tweet, Ramaphosa acted swiftly and suspended Ndabeni-Abrahams for two months, one of them without pay.

Responses were varied. Some people were extremely critical of the perceived leniency shown, and especially of the disparity in the way people are treated dependent on their level of privilege. A sample headline: "While Cabinet Minister Gets a ‘Slap on the Wrist’, Homeless are Shot at for Trying to Leave Unsafe Camp".

Others were approving of Ramaphosa’s actions, perhaps because they were more realistic, as well as better versed in the history of SA politicians and accountability. This attitude was probably best encapsulated in the headline: "Whatever You Think of Stella’s Sanction, It’s a Step-up from the Zuma Years."

In a famous example of how much former president Jacob Zuma enjoyed sniggering at the idea of accountability, when the Constitutional Court finally ordered him to comply with the public protector’s instruction to reprimand former police minister Nathi Mthethwa, public works minister Thulas Nxesi and former minister Geoff Doidge, he fake-complied by telling them "I hereby deliver the reprimand required."

Underscoring the gamut of attitudes was one burning, fundamental issue: has justice been done? In a time when governments appear to be playing lockdown lotto with the law, making a bunch of seemingly illogical decisions — cigarettes banned, chocolates not — and seeing which ones get lucky, many of us are turning to the artists of the absurd to make sense of it all. Those of us who aren’t adherents to religion, take comfort from the lesser fictions of writers such as Franz Kafka.

Kafka’s famous novel The Trial deals with the bureaucratic morass of the state that is the law. It contains a parable, "Before the Law", in which the story’s unnamed protagonist is forced to wait before the gate of law for his whole life.

"Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. ‘It is possible,’ says the gatekeeper, ‘but not now.’

"The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, and he wears the gatekeeper out with his requests."

As the man is dying from old age, he gathers his last fading energy, and asks the gatekeeper a final question. "‘Everyone strives to attain the Law,’ [asks] the man, ‘how does it come about, then, that in all these years no-one has come seeking admittance but me?’ The doorkeeper ... bellows in his ear: ‘No-one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it.’"

This parable pretty much encapsulates why Stellagate (why has nobody annoying called it that yet? Oh — I guess they just have) resonated so much with us.

In SA, our relationship to justice is an uneasy one, as if with a mysterious egg we’re sitting on and trying to hatch. Will a fluffy chicken pop out, or a vicious reptile? (You’ve probably just realised that Kafka is much better at metaphors than I am.)

The parable tells us justice is different to the law: "Justice is what is promised by law; its possibility is what keeps us obedient, patient, and hopeful," to quote an essay mentioned later in this column.

The potential for justice is what keeps us behaving as good citizens, and this is especially true during a lockdown, where we all sit in front of our individual, law-determined, firmly closed doors, waiting for justice.

Before the law, the man from the country spends his life waiting for a justice that never arrives. In an essay that references "Before the Law", in Stanford University’s Arcade magazine, James Martel writes that "the law can itself be said to be a product of our expectation for justice. Though the man from the country never gets ‘access’ to law in its perfect and fullest sense (a law infused with justice, we could call this Law, with a capital L), it permeates and regulates his life nonetheless."

This is why it’s so infuriating when we can see so clearly — when we get our noses rubbed in it, to be frank — that justice becomes contingent when it’s activated. Contingent on who you are, on your level of access to power, and on the whims of those tasked with administering justice.

But it’s equally infuriating when the arrogant actions of a ministerial malcontent — one whose egomania is eclipsed only by her tenuous grasp of geography — force us to play out the fiction of justice at a time when actual lives depend on law-abidance.

Law is a system of rules, and the lockdown laws originated because of a specific and violent global moment: the coronavirus crisis. Justice, however, is the idea that give the law its value, and both are damaged when our political peacocks decide to shake their feathered arses in our faces.

In Kafka’s parable, everyone gets their own individual door in front of which to wait for justice. Justice never comes, but the expectation is what keeps society together.

Now, thanks to the cauldron of Covid-19, and the actions of people like Ndabeni-Abrahams, that expectation has been shaken. It’s not what she did that’s so heinous; it’s what she did to us