The Enyobeni tavern tragedy reveals a perfect storm of social failures across our entire social landscape.
What is now emerging is that a generator operated indoors may have been responsible for poisoning the 21 children who died in this latest South Africa horror.
Diesel generators, of course, are symptomatic of our electricity utility’s inability to provide our citizens with reliable power.
The fact that a nightclub that serves alcohol was full of underage learners points to the failure of the liquor regulating authorities in the Eastern Cape. That these children were allowed out of their households to visit the club is a failure of parenting.
If, as reported, the club’s neighbours had laid several complaints about the club with local law-enforcement, then there was also a significant failure of policing.
All of these failures combined to create the conditions that led dozens of children into the overcrowded venue where so many of them lost their lives. These are failures of adults. Failures of greed, neglect, laziness. Corruption perhaps… And it was children who eventually paid for these failures with their lives.
This is a dark time for our country. Literally. At the moment, many of us are spending every night of our lives in the dark and the cold, generators buzzing the distance, complaining about the same ineffectual power utility.
We’ve stopped saying, “It can’t get any worse”, because experience has shown that that things definitely can.
To this gloomy prospect I would like to add, one faintly hopeful observation. Things can definitely get better!
Remember, too, that our nation’s fortunes have been a good deal worse. Not even 20 years ago, we lived in a nightmare. And against all odds, we turned things around.
It was the time of the HIV/Aids pandemic, and it may have cost five million human lives.
To this day, South Africa remains the country with the largest number of people infected with HIV. The prevalence rate for people living with HIV is 19%. What makes this state of affairs sustainable is that our people – all of us – are livingwith HIV.
This disease has become a chronic condition that can be managed through medication, even if it can not yet be cured.
But if we look back at our history, we remember the horror. Our first Aids deaths were recorded in 1983. Ten years later, the HIV prevalence rate among pregnant women was 4.3%. Within another five years, testing showed the prevalence at 22,8%.
Through a combination of factors, our people began dying in droves. There was denialism, fed by the stigma of Aids being spread through sexual contact. There was prohibitive global pricing. There was the racialising of the disease and a refusal to be typecast as an Aids-ridden continent. There was corruption, incompetence and maladministration. There was pride and ignorance.
Many of us can remember the conspiracy of silence as we lost friends, colleagues and family members to the disease.
We spoke of it in the abstract, as a social trend that needed addressing. But when it struck close to home, we watched our people shrink before our eyes, become hospitalised and then die. We buried them and moved on.
It was a personal tragedy multiplied by millions.
Eventually, we accepted reality. Brave sufferers came out and helped to break down the stigma. Civil society – especially the Treatment Action Campaign – rallied and saved millions. We began to pragmatically follow the science, to negotiate affordable medicines and to roll out treatment.
Today, HIV/Aids is a manageable disease.
But once, it was a death sentence. Once, South Africa was a wilfully incompetent killing field, marching its people to their graves.
It was way worse than loadshedding.
And we turned things around. We identified the problems, we set about working together to fix them. It took years, a decade perhaps, but gradually we turned the tide.
Today, HIV and Aids hardly ever make the headlines. But once upon a time, this virus, this syndrome threatened to destroy us.
I try to bear this in mind when we sink into the gloom of Level 6 loadshedding, and the dark and the cold start to bite.
We have been through much worse, as South Africans, and we have overcome. We can do it again. Have hope, have optimism. We can make things better. • This is my last column for The Citizen. It is column number 143, and I have enjoyed writing every one of them. Thanks to the friendly Citizen teams who have proofed and placed those columns, and to you, for giving up your precious time to read my typings. Let’s keep making things better.