Minister of social development Lindiwe Zulu. Picture: Gallo Images/Alet Pretorius
Minister of social development Lindiwe Zulu. Picture: Gallo Images/Alet Pretorius

Just as “Let them eat cake” became a slogan emblematic of the out-of-touch Queen Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution, social development minister Lindiwe Zulu’s jaw-dropping water cannon shenanigans may well prove to be the defining image of SA’s lockdown.

Admittedly, there’s stiff competition: ANC officials packed cheek by jowl at Andrew Mlangeni’s funeral after telling their subjects (sorry, citizens) to limit the size of funerals; communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams posting an Instagram video of her regulation-busting lockdown lunch; or beachgoers being bundled into police vans for, you know, swimming.

But Zulu upped the ante spectacularly on Friday.

For those who’ve been spared the full horror of what happened, Zulu was conducting a spot check at the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) offices in Bellville, Cape Town, where about 400 indigent South Africans were queuing — many overnight without food or water — for social grants. It’s a scene on repeat throughout the country, as 200,000 disability grant recipients were told their grants had lapsed in December, and they now had to reapply, in person.

That’s already a damning indictment of Zulu’s competence. But then, in her finest Marie Antoinette impression, Zulu instructed those waiting to “socially distance” and form a line, as she climbed into an armoured police van.

When no-one responded, perhaps immune to the diktats of out-of-touch authorities, the police blasted water cannon over the disabled and desperate South Africans in the queue.

Maybe we should expect this from a police force of which the thuggish Bheki Cele is the political head. Police, after all, have killed numerous people since the lockdown began, like 16-year-old Nathaniel Julies. But it’s behaviour that can only be described as sociopathic.

Reporters from GroundUp who were at the scene spoke to a number of those queuing, including the 50-year-old Abeeda Radyn from Elsies River, who’d been in line since 11pm the previous day.

(Read the full article here.)

Radyn has arthritis. “All I did was put on my hoodie when they started spraying, because unlike the others I couldn’t just get up and run away.”

It was the third week she’d returned to queue, she told GroundUp. “I need that grant because it puts the food on my table. It is what helps my children get through school,” she said.

Yet this is the kind of person that Zulu decided should be sprayed with water cannon. It’s a revealing glimpse into the ANC’s heart of stone, showing how little respect some politicians have for “the people”.

No wonder the Black Sash described the incident as shameful. “There was no justification for the use of water cannon to enforce social distancing, as Sassa failed to provide an adequate procedure for the reapplication of temporary disability grants,” it said.

Or put another way: Zulu’s government created the disaster — then water-bombed its citizens when the entirely predictable happened.

Editor Peter Bruce writes that it goes deeper than simply a failure of leadership. “Zulu was too scared of the crowd to get out among them and at least sympathise. If it had been an ANC ‘event’ of some kind, she would have been all over it,” he says.

But if you were hoping for any self-awareness, let alone contrition, from Zulu, you’d still be waiting.

Afterwards, she said: “It’s painful to see that happening, but on the other hand … I could see the danger of people infecting each other by refusing, literally refusing, to open up the space and refusing to keep a distance.” And she added that she “doesn’t think” the police would have sprayed the queue were we not a pandemic. But the fact that she is less than certain of this assertion speaks volumes.

Writing in the Sunday Times yesterday, the inestimable Justice Malala said this incident reveals the character of the modern ANC. He compared it to how the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) lost all its moral authority on August 16 2012 at Marikana, outside Rustenburg, where 34 mineworkers were shot by police.

Earlier that day, as tensions between striking workers and police escalated, the NUM’s president at the time, Senzeni Zokwana, arrived to address the miners. But rather than defuse the situation, he remained inside an armoured police vehicle, and simply told workers to go back to work. “He was afraid of the people he had come to address. The workers shouted him down. The police Nyala rushed him out of there,” writes Malala.

It was that moment, Malala said, when the life ebbed out of the NUM. The comparison with the ANC is inescapable.

Keep that image of Zulu in mind. It is the image of a leadership that has lost touch with its people,” writes Malala. “Soon, those poor people who have been blasted with water cannon will ask themselves: why are we voting for this abuse?”

When that happens, expect the ANC to be as surprised as Louis XVI was when the revolution arrived at his gilded palace gates.

*Rose is editor of the FM

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