Hear, see, speak no evil

Manuel and Ramaphosa ‘doing the ostrich’ is ironic and troubling

Historians say the myth that ostriches react to danger by burying their heads in the sand is the creation of Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny the Elder.

In his encyclopedic work The Natural History, Pliny wrote that ostriches, because of “their stupidity … imagine when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of the body is concealed”.

What Pliny wrote about here was probably the mischaracterisation of an ostrich picking up and swallowing rocks to aid digestion, or it might have been laying low, with its head and neck to the ground, to become inconspicuous to predators.

The point is that there are other, more appropriate ways to explain what Pliny might have seen, because ostriches flee when faced with immediate danger.

Pliny had likely observed human beings dealing with problems by averting their eyes and believing that if they don’t see the problem, it doesn’t exist. He then used this understanding of people to anthropomorphically explain the behaviour of the ostrich.

The myth persists, even though we know Pliny was wrong about the ostrich, because it allows for a metaphor that is spot-on about people.

Sometimes, like Pliny’s ostrich, we resort to maladaptive coping mechanisms to get through a situation in the short term rather than face up to it to find a permanent fix.

Trevor Manuel, the chair of the National Planning Commission (NPC), acted like Pliny’s ostrich at Wits University two weeks ago, as did the NPC’s deputy chair, Cyril Ramaphosa, at the same venue later.

Manuel was delivering the annual Ruth First Memorial Lecture, in which he paid lip service to the migrant-labour system and the effects of poverty and inequality in the mining sector – the themes of this year’s lecture.

He said we should give the Farlam commission – you know, the one where the legal representatives of those involved are funded inequitably – the full public confidence it needs to find the answers to the questions occupying our minds about the Marikana massacre and the events leading up to it.

“We have learnt much about the human condition and solidarity,” Manuel said of the lessons for the nation from those two bloody weeks in August 2012.

“And we should not be afraid to be unorthodox.”

But at the first opportunity to be unorthodox and to show solidarity, Manuel wilted.

He looked on as Wits security escorted members of the Marikana Support Campaign – which included mine workers who had survived on the day of the massacre – out of the hall for having the temerity to ask questions at the end of the lecture.

Questions at the Ruth First lecture were not customary, said Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib, with no hint of irony. And that was that. Johnny
Clegg hopped on stage, and sang and danced, while those evicted, those whose struggles were the theme of the lecture, protested outside.

The scene was repeated last Wednesday when Ramaphosa delivered a paean to the National Development Plan, which holds the shared vision of what this country will be by 2030 – emphasis, supposedly, on shared.

Questions were allowed this time. But Ramaphosa – who had days before the massacre used his undue political influence to demand “concomitant action” against the striking miners or, as he called them, “dastardly criminals” – ignored many of the questions about Marikana.

And he had to be asked a few times about the state’s refusal to fund the legal representation of the survivors of the massacre before he offered a response.

He said weakly that it was a government issue and that a solution might yet be found.

And again, members of the support campaign were kicked out of the venue for expressing dissatisfaction at the refusal by our most senior leaders to listen to those most affected by the social ills plaguing this country.

Manuel and Ramaphosa aren’t alone in doing this. The government behaved as though the first anniversary of the Marikana massacre was just another day.

The minister of razzmatazz, Fikile Mbalula, even scheduled a Nelson Mandela-themed sporting event the day after the anniversary to anaesthetise the nation.

But Manuel and Ramaphosa doing the ostrich is perhaps the most ironic and troubling. They are after all charged with crafting a vision for a future that includes us all. How they do this with their heads thrust in the sand isn’t a mystery at all. It’s simple. They don’t.

» Molefe is a writer and media commentator

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