The gift horse which took the country back donkey’s years

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By Howard Feldman

I would argue that it is the saddest story of the South African year. In a year that “gifted” South Africa with the highest number of days of loadshedding on record, of increasing unemployment and of international humiliation in terms of the country’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is not easy to find a winner. And yet, a story that quietly entered and exited the headlines, for me, is one that bags first prize.

“Northwest government blows R780 000 on donkey carts to alleviate challenges in rural communities.”

Here are some details for anyone who missed it.

The African National Congress government recently bought 20 donkey carts valued at around R780 000 to help transport villagers to clinics and schools and wherever else they need to go. According to the report, the prices of the carts ranged from R32 500 for a two-seater to R45 500 for a four-seater. 

Community Safety MEC Sello Lehari said the carts would be maintained by the service provider as part of a three-year contract with the department. It was not clear from the reports if donkeys were provided. One assumes not.

The donkey cart story is not a dramatic one. It’s not one that impacts on the whole country like loadshedding, crime or unemployment. It is not as dramatic as multiple unexplained deaths in a tavern and does not ask us to check updates and outcomes.

So much so that were it not for News24, it would be unlikely that anyone would even have noticed. That is aside from the donkeys who will have suddenly found themselves to be in great demand for no apparent reason. It is, however, a deeply symbolic event and one that would be a mistake to ignore.

Remember Marelise? That young woman who learned to ride a bicycle on an empty rugby field? Her mother filmed her as despite the vast emptiness of the space all around her, she seemed drawn to one of the new poles around and then slammed headlong into it. Aside from her mother’s exasperation, there was something about the story that captivated us. Of course, it was the ridiculousness of it all that made us laugh, but there was more to it.

On a deep level we saw ourselves doing exactly what Marelise was doing. We identified ourselves on that field and we knew that it was never really about the bike.

The donkey carts story speaks to the failure of the ANC. Far from the “smart cities” promised by President Ramaphosa, they take us back to an era a far cry from innovation and development. It is acknowledgement that forward is too challenging and that backwards is easier.

Much like Eskom handing out candles as a solution to loadshedding.

More than this, it speaks to the disdain that the ANC has for the people of the country. It suggests that it is all the people of Northwest deserve and that a donkey cart is all they might aspire to. More than that and given that no self-respecting ANC member would be seen in anything less than the latest motor vehicle model, it speaks to a “them” and “us” divide. What is good for you, is not something that we would tolerate. But for you, it’s good enough.

Like loadshedding, because ministers are not loadshedded. Like public health, because ministers would be seen dead in a government hospital (so to speak). Or like education. Or public transport.

The donkey cart story is the story of an ANC lead South Africa: and that is before considering the reasonableness of a cost of R45 000 for a 4-seater.

Rather than being grateful for the insult of the gift, the residents of the area, like the rest of South Africa, should reject the meagre offerings of an arrogant leadership. It is time to call it for what it is, and for once to kick that gift horse in the mouth.