On the evening of Thursday April 14 2011, I took part in an excellent discussion panel organised by the Steve Biko Foundation at Wits university in Johanneburg. Driving back to Pretoria later on, a journalist friend called and asked me if I had watched the prime news on national television. Of course, I had not been able to watch the news. Nor had I ever heard of 33-year-old man called Andries Tatane.
Today (April 15), South African radio current affairs and talk shows could not stop talking about Andries. Newspapers led with the story of Andries Tatane. Overnight, Andries has become famous. Pity his “fame” comes into focus more than 24 hours after his death. He died on April 13 2011. His is a chilling and a hollow kind of fame. Is it not funny how the poor make news through death while the rich make news in life?
But who is Andries Tatane? We know he was 33 — a young man by ANC Youth League standards. He was a resident of Meqheleng, a poverty-stricken township outside the town of Ficksburg. We know he was maths teacher — a scarce, and skilled teacher in this country. Indeed, we know from his friends and that his love for mathematics started when he was at high school. He apparently devoted a lot of time assisting fellow students who had difficulty with the subject. We know he was a community activist. We know he had ambitions for becoming a ward counsellor. For all we know, he might have been on the list of independent candidates for the May 18 elections. He certainly expressed this desire to his friends. He was a family man. His wife’s name is Rose. His little son Molefe is still asking for his father today.
How did he die? Tatane apparently approached the riot police to try and beg for mercy on behalf of an elderly man who was apparently not part of the protest. I think Tatane naively believed that members of a police force of a democratic state could be spoken to and reasoned with. He was wrong. So wrong. If you are brave, watch the http://youtu.be/omWi5PayXiM”>SABC TV footage on Youtube.
Andries Tatane is seen surrounded by a group of between six or eight men armed with batons and guns. The police are clobbering him with batons all at once, much like we used to kill venomous snakes in rural Lipompo. At one stage, probably in a knee-jerk reaction, the desperate Tatane attempts to fight back. But how can one unarmed man fight so many armed men? Clearly helpless, Tatane is clobbered to the ground by the well-armed policemen. It seems that when he attempts to stand up, he is shot through the chest. Did the shooter have to aim for the chest? At first Tatane seems almost surprised to see blood dripping down his chest. Next Tatane is seen holding his wound in a desperate attempt to stem the gushing blood flow. A friend and an elderly gentleman are seen trying to assist him. Suddenly he collapses. Next we see his lifeless body being put into an ambulance. End of story.
Andries Tatane died in broad daylight, in full view of TV cameras. The minister of police has apparently threatened an inquiry. I would have expected no less than a resignation from him. His resignation could give meaning and dignity to the inquiry. More than 48 hours since the death of Tatane, the police commissioner, whose favourite piece of advice to the police is “shoot-to-kill”, has not said a word. More that 48 hours later, the screaming silence of our democratic government has been deafening. The presidency has been mum. Nor has the ANC Youth League said anything. Is that how cheap the life of a Tatane is in this country?
Why did Tatane die? To begin with, Tatane and his fellow protesters should never have been put in the situation where they are at the mercy of our shoot-to-kill police force. By the time we reach that scenario, it’s too late. Our political and administrative leaders should never have been so negligent — 17 years since the dawn of democracy. Why were the people of Meqheleng protesting? For electricity and proper water supply, for toilets, for repairs to drains as well as waste removal. Residents of Meqheleng have to walk for up to 10km to fetch water. What makes this community less deserving of services than the communities of Houghton in Johannesburg and Waterkloef in Pretoria? Why are they still waiting for the most basic of services, 17 years later?
Andries Tatane died because he dared to join his fellow residents in a desperate protest aimed at highlighting their plight 17 years since democracy. Andries was clearly a proud South African citizen. Like many South Africans his age, he was a starry-eyed teenager when Mandela became the first democratic and black president of this country. Together with millions of other South Africans, he invested a lot of hope in our young democracy. From what we know of him, he participated vigorously in the democratic processes. Andries took the political promise of the new dispensation seriously. For too long he also took the myriad promises of the politicians seriously. Perhaps more seriously than the politicians themselves. But the patience of Andries Tatane was wearning thin.
He was not just a South African. He was a human being entitled to each and every one of the rights enshrined in the Constitution of this country. Tatane believed that it was necessary and possible for this country to become a home for all its citizens. This is what Andries Tatane died for. Nay, Andries Tatane did not die. He was killed. He was killed for asking for a better life for himself and his fellow South Africans. Andries did not deserve to be killed. Not so brutally. Not on this week. Not in that way. Not for this. Not in my country!