By Masingita Masunga
Some years ago I was outside our family gate with some family friends and some neighbours . My then four-year old twin nieces and few of their friends were playing there, then someone who is well known in the community to have a mental condition greeted us as he passed. I intentionally observed that interaction as my nieces and friends made fun of him calling him by his first name. What concerned me because I resonate with, was the fact that the kids (who call me hahani/aunty) were not reprimanded for disrespecting an adult including calling an uncle by his name. A year down the line the story of Esidimeni tragedy broke, I again observed with interest how the same people who didn’t teach children to show respect and dignity to an adult because of their mental health condition were expressing shock and horror at the inhumane treatment of Esidimeni patients.
As the story of the KZN family that buried their child with cerebral palsy in secrecy got news coverage, it is with conflicting thoughts and emotions to watch and listen to the public outcry of yet another story/situation of the brutality and inhumane treatment of people with disabilities during a time and month that South Africa and the whole world are “observing” Disability Awareness Month.
I can’t help but think about the mother, who had to endure raising a child in a society in which people with disabilities are discriminated against. Due to negligence when I was born, my mother’s pain and trauma became that of raising a child who is brain damaged, over and above the stigma attached to people with disabilities who are treated as not human enough.
One of the questions still haunting my mother even after 44 years is “N’wana loyi mi ngu endle yini?”- What have you done to this child? It is hard enough that your child has a disability but why would a mother be blamed for it? With this type of question and attitude, the probability is that, some people are not hiding their family members with disabilities out of shame and embarrassment, on the contrary it may be their attempt and only option to protect their loved ones from being humiliated. I am in no way condoning the act or approving what happened in KZN because no human being deserves that treatment.
Again, a part of me cannot help but think that the family has had to probably deal with stigmatised societal attitudes in a South African society that has normalised violence, even directed at those with disabilities. One can never conclusively say that the circumstances around Nondumiso Zondi’s lonely and cruel death were not a culmination of how he lived as a person with disability.
I may not have known him yet I can bet my last penny that he has been “othered”, misunderstood, misrepresented and undermined, even to the day when his life was brutally ended. As a black woman with a disability, I know what being misunderstood, misrepresented and undermined feels like, I live this everyday of my life when I’m in public spaces.
This week as I prepare for the abOVEnormal swimwear photoshoot, done by women of different ages, shapes, sizes and looks for our 16 days of activism campaign which tackles gender-based violence from another angle. The participants share about the violence that is hardly spoken about including stereotyping, body shaming, ageism and bullying. I will be sharing about ableism, which is another form of violent and oppressive behaviour, a discrimination many of us deal with daily and everywhere.
I honestly have no idea where to start. Do I start with the government which has great policies on affirming people with disabilities but has broken and traumatised some of us to the point that we have resorted to detaching and disengaging from interacting with them for the sake of our sanity and mental health.
Do I talk about the fact that those younger than us are called Sesi, Buti and Aunty, but not us because we have disabilities, so we do not deserve it? Do I talk about the fact that none of our political parties have the will or undertake solidarity campaigns to address issues of disability openly and truthfully, they still give the condescending and patronising approach to us? Do I talk about how some people treat us as if we are invisible in our presence, they speak about and to us as if we are non-entities? Do I speak about being overlooked, bypassed, degraded, dehumanised, rejected, being infantilised, and reduced to second-class citizens? The list is endless, violent and the disrespect never stops, I cannot begin to say the psychological and emotional damage that it causes.
Do I talk about the media that treats us like actors in freak-shows instead of a stakeholder segment whose voice and activities contribute to the upliftment of our society? Do I speak of corporates and businesses that continue to exclude us from economic participation and the transformation agenda whereas we are not exempted from trading and consuming at the same market value as others?
The cases such as those of Life Esidimeni, Nathaniel Julies and Nondumiso Zondi are a reflection of our society’s attitudes toward people with disabilities. Let’s be honest with ourselves for once, those who commit these dehumanising acts have been empowered and influenced by society over the years, so they just put the final nail in the coffin, no pun intended. (This does not take away from the fact that there must be dire consequences for gambling with other people’s lives).
This disability rights awareness month, while we rightfully point fingers and judge the perpetrators of the demeaning and horrendous acts that marginalise people with disabilities even at death, please take a moment to ask the person you see in the mirror what is it that they are doing to ensure that people with disabilities LIVE with respect and dignity, and what have you done to ensure that the environment they live in is safe for people with disabilities and their loved ones to live in without shame because change can only start when we start to change ourselves.
* Masingita Masunga is a television personality, abOVEnormal sports brand owner, and activist for mainstreaming issues affecting people with disabilities