Opinion: I watched a man die, it felt like watching the death of Ubuntu


Ntsiki Mthethwa Picture: Supplied.

By Ntsiki Mthethwa


When I left home on the morning of the last Friday of April this year, I had seen a dead person before. Actually, I had seen a few. But I had never seen someone die. When I left work to go home that morning, I had no idea that that would be the day I see someone take their last breath right before my eyes.


I left home at 11:40 am to go to the Soweto theatre for artist’s rehearsals. We had an event there the following day. As I turned towards the theatre, I saw a group of people gathered and talking in hushed tones. The journalist in me would not let me pass without investigating. I moved closer. Before I saw him, I saw his blood. There is something about human blood that is shocking, it makes you want to look at it and look away all at the same time. As I moved even closer, I saw him. He was lying there, his earphones still in his ears. He was still breathing, his back pumping up and down rapidly. He was facing down. I wondered if he could still hear whatever had been playing on his phone. I also wondered if he could hear the commotion around him, if he was asking himself why no one was helping him. We were all just standing there, watching him, others taking pictures and videos of him.


I recognised on of the women standing in the crowd as a community leader so I concluded that an ambulance has been called. I asked a street vendor in that arrear what had happened. He told me that the man had been shot by someone who drove off in a red Corolla, the police had chased after him. I felt so helpless and kept asking the guy next to me “is there no police here who can help this poor guy or even go to the hospital to demand for an ambulance to be dispatched.” I felt the urge to try and get help for this guy but I was not sure about the protocol since the police had already on the scene. I wondered if maybe policemen were not trained to do first aid in situations like these. I wondered if saving his life was not more important than catching the shooter.


Just as I was wondering, the police came back. They asked us to move away as they started putting barricade tape around him. As all of this was happening, I kept asking myself why there was no ambulance yet. The Bheki Mlangeni District Hospital was just 650m away. One could literally run to get help if the phones where not getting answered.

People were still only taking pictures and videos. My system was in shock. I could not understand if what shocked me the most was the man lying facedown on the ground fighting for his life or the people who did nothing to help him, only just take photos of him in his most vulnerable moment. Was this who we had become as a people.


An hour after I arrived, the emergency medical services people came. I watched in disbelief as they went about as if they were attending someone with a slight headache. No emergency here. They calmly went back and for the between him and the ambulance. I started to think that maybe this kind of behavior was normal for paramedics because of the horrors they see on a daily basis. But just then an ambulance from a private hospital also arrived at the scene. The paramedics from that hospital acted with haste, like man’s life was hanging in the balance and their actions could help save his life.


But it was too late. As the paramedics were attending to this man, cutting his t-shirt open trying to give him oxygen, one of them put their fingers on the neck checking for a pulse, suddenly they stopped, they looked at each other that is when I realized he was gone.


My heart became so heavy as they wrapped him in the foil. I kept mumbling, had this man been attended to earlier maybe he would still be alive. I felt defeated. The man shot in public view in broad daylight, the people who just watched him and took pictures of him, the police who arrived and did nothing, the paramedics who did not see urgency in assisting him. It was all too much.


Generally, as a woman in South African I feel unsafe. But this made me to feel more unsafe. I like going for morning jogs. Anything could happen to me on those jogs. Would people help me or people would they be interested in taking pictures and videos to be news breakers? The paramedics, would they behave like my life mattered or they would treat my life with the same carelessness they did with the young man. What happened to Ubuntu, to compassion, to kindness, to treating each other how we want to be treated. These are values I always associated with black people in South Africa. Especially after what we went through during apartheid. We know the value of Ubuntu because for so long it was denied us. How can we now deny uBuntu to each other?


The following day I went past the spot where that man died, precisely 24 hour later and my heart sank when I saw his blood dried up on the side of the road like it was blood from an animal that had been slaughtered. The feeling of helplessness and grief overwhelmed me. Grief not just for the life that was lost, but also for a people that seem to be losing they way, forgetting who they are.

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