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Stadium deaths spotlight ANC dysfunctionality

Many will agree that the death of 34 miners in a hail of police gunfire at Marikana in August last year was a disastrous indicator of the African National Congress’ governance failures. A competent, modern administration does not mow down its citizens en masse.

Nor does it run them to death. In an incident that has received only a fraction of the publicity it merits, probably because it occurred during that lacuna in public consciousness that occurs between Christmas and New Year, seven young job applicants collapsed and died during a suitability test conducted by the KwaZulu-Natal Road Traffic Inspectorate (RTI).

They were part of a group of about 35 000 from all around the province, who gathered in Pietermaritzburg after being “shortlisted” out of 150 000 applicants for 90 traffic officer posts. It now transpires that many of those shortlisted did not even meet the minimum requirement of having a driver’s licence.

The test was to complete a 4km run in under 30 minutes, conducted in Pietermaritzburg’s sweltering December heat and humidity with temperatures ranging between 35-40°C. There were no watering points and, in fact, there was very little drinking water at all in the Harry Gwala stadium – official capacity of 10 000 – where the two tranches of 17 500 applicants at a time, were assembled for testing.

It was during the first day’s test, Thursday December 27, that the seven died, after collapsing in the extreme conditions. An eighth man, upon hearing that he had failed to meet the qualifying time for the test, went home and committed suicide.

Bizarrely, despite these disastrous events, the RTI, undeterred, went ahead the next day with the second group, the only change being that they had to sign an indemnity form. Fortunately, there were no fatalities on the Friday, although about 230 people were hospitalised over the course of the two days.

Let’s leave aside for the moment that an inspectorate staffed with more than its fair share of lard-arses uses a 4km run in gruelling conditions to grade the suitability of applicants. One doubts that more than 20% of the present RTI staff complement could pass that hurdle, judging by the wheezing fatties one sees straining the suspension of their KZN cruisers.

Marikana and the Harry Gwala Stadium are sides to a coin. At Marikana the desperate, working poor expired at the hands of the police. At the Harry Gwala Stadium the desperate, unemployed poor expired at the hands of the road traffic police.

One set of deaths was caused by deliberate gunfire, the second set by inadvertent incompetence. Nevertheless, when a government causes the mass expiry of its citizens, the reasonable expectation in a democracy is that those in charge will fall on their swords or be put to the sword.

But apparently none of what happened at the Harry Gwala Stadium is anyone’s fault. The transport, community safety and liaison MEC, Willies Mchunu, protests that no blame should attach to him. No officials have resigned or been suspended. The grieving families are placated with the assurance of an “internal inquiry”.

The roots of this shifty evasion of responsibility, which has become a defining characteristic of this ANC administration, lies in the organisation’s tradition of collective leadership. It is an ANC myth that the ongoing national revolution is driven by the grassroots – that comrade leaders do no more than voice the decisions of the collective.

With collective decision making there comes an inevitable dilution of personal responsibility. If everyone is responsible, then no one as an individual is truly responsible. No one carries the can. Not for Marikana. Not for the events at Harry Gwala Stadium.

The ruthless, blood-stained Stalinist after whom the stadium is named would approve.


  • William Saunderson-Meyer

    This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.