The inequality of murder
Mnoneleli Ngubo was talented at grinning and talking. The last time I saw him, one week ago in my office, he spoke at such length that I literally began to drift off to sleep. Mnoneleli was known to all as ‘Mylord’, the provenance of which I do not know, but it stuck because it somehow fit: he was larger than life. None of us will hear his stories again, because Mnoneleli was murdered last night, in his bed, in Khayelitsha.
He is the fifth member of Equal Education to be killed in the past three years.
In October 2009 one of the brightest stars in EE, Simthembile Sitsha, a grade 11 learner at KwaMfundo High School, was killed, as he crossed the street, in a hit and run accident. In August 2010 Mzikayise Boto, a grade 11 at Harry Gwala High School, was stabbed to death. A year later in September 2011, Akhona Sojola, who matriculated in 2010 at Harold Cressy High School, was also stabbed to death. Only two weeks ago, the body of Siphe Somlenze, a 15-year old grade 9 at Thembelihle High School, was found on Monwabisi Beach. And this morning we awoke to the news of Mylord’s passing.
All of the above lived in Khayelitsha. Simthembile, Akhona and Mylord were members of the Leadership Committee elected by the high school members of Equal Education.
In 2011 Mylord was selected for a year-long EE post-matric program that combines academic development with leadership training. At the end of the program the participants re-write most of their matric subjects, in the hope that they can access tertiary education with improved marks. Mylord struggled bitterly with his school work, and thought more than once about running away to the Eastern Cape. But he persevered with great courage. In the end he managed to improve his Physical Science mark from 17% to 43%, and his Life Science mark from 29% to 43%. He became the proud holder of a National Senior Certificate.
Each member of the program was allocated a mentor for the year, and Mylord and I were paired together. He initially told me that he didn’t need a mentor, but that if I wanted to be friends he would accept that, which I did. His pride slowly gave way. Mylord was known for his temper, but I never saw that side of him. Sometimes we would walk and chat at length, and other times we would watch a movie together so that I could avoid three non-stop hours of his infinite ability to talk. I got to know him quite well.
He recruited many people into Equal Education, but his best achievement was to recruit his older sister, Cilia Ngubo. Cilia began to volunteer at EE and was eventually given the duty of preparing the staff lunch every Friday. Today she is EE’s bookkeeper, fully trained on the latest accounting software, and a tyrant of financial accountability.
It goes without saying that this article will be all that will appear in the mainstream press about Mylord’s murder. None of the other four murders were reported on. Let us imagine just for a moment that a leading graduate of a one of our plush private schools had been killed last night. Such a tragedy would not pass so unnoticed.
But Khayelitsha is a distant unknown place for those of us who live around the mountain. So far removed from the city it is, that we don’t even pass it when driving to the airport. It is a land where electricity wires crisscross the streets in their dozens, bringing some light and heat to a distant shack. Streets and neighbourhoods are unsignposted, and usually unlit. Its entrance is marked only by enormous billboards advertising alcohol, cynically perched high above the squalor below. One must drive down Lansdowne Road with enormous caution to avoid the scores of potholes that damage uninsured vehicles daily, including the taxis that then careen off the highways.
Shacks are stacked on mud, side by side with jagged pathways running between. Water seeps through the roofs and the floors, the same floors on which many children sleep. It is rare to find a child under five who looks healthy. Every nose is running. Whole communities share a few outdoor toilets.
From such a place come the petrol attendants, the factory workers, the garbage collectors, and the domestic workers of Cape Town.
There is no simple answer to the question of why such a place should exist. There are many reasons, some beyond even the immediate control of governments. But such poverty and humiliation – the kind that produce young men who kill other young men, and beat women – exist also because our society has an unusually high tolerance for inequality and the degradation of human beings.
We twist and turn through what Edward Said called “magic thinking”, a style of reasoning that blurs the distinction between truth and fiction so as to make a man-made, deliberately constructed disaster seem like a necessary or at least an acceptable thing. It is the essence of magical thinking, he said, to make light of what is in fact heavy.
It is a society driven by the logic of Cllr JP Smith, who in 2010 said that extra policing would not be provided for Khayelitsha hotspots because its residents did not pay rates. Instead of building understanding we absorb the ignorance of Gareth Cliff who asks why, if people are so poor, are they also so fat? Rather than sharing we covet the wealth and arrogance of Kenny Kunene.
In a society where quality education is available to all, the logic of hard work takes root quite naturally. But in ours, where knowledge and skill are commodities that only a few can buy, the rest are left to plot more magical, disastrous and tragic pathways to success. Khanyi Mbau therefore becomes a role-model.
What Mylord fought for was something a little different, a decent society based on solidarity. The level of investment and reform that will be needed to achieve this is not even under discussion. The work now to be done will surely be harder without him.
Isaacs is the co-ordinator of Equal Education. He wrote this article on Thursday morning.