Cape Town, 1974

Joseph was late for work. Proud of his status as a skilled worker – he was a welder — he was conscientious about timekeeping. Hastily kissing his wife and children goodbye he stepped out of his neat house into the Guguletu street and started walking briskly towards the bus stop. Rounding a corner he saw his bus approaching and broke into a run. “Stop! Police!” But Joseph didn’t hear the shout. Perhaps he heard the gunfire before he dropped to the ground, his cervical vertebra shattered, his spinal cord severed.

Joseph was taken to Conradie hospital which specialised in spinal injuries. All he could move was his eyes. A mirror above his head allowed him to see his surroundings and it was through this mirror that he saw two policemen coming towards him, accompanied by the ward sister. They lifted his paralysed hands, dipped the unfeeling fingers into black ink and took his fingerprints. Then they left.

Joseph’s rehabilitation began almost immediately: physiotherapy to strengthen the few functioning muscles in his arms and occupational therapy to help him do some basic tasks like cleaning his teeth. Most importantly, he exercised the muscles which would later operate the wrist-driven hand splints which enabled quadriplegics to use a pinch grip. Joseph was one of my star patients. His intelligence and motivation were clear from the start and he was ready to use the splints in record time. The day that a patient is first fitted with a flexor-hinge splint is momentous: a hand that has been a useless appendage becomes, once again, serviceable. I fastened the splint onto Joseph’s right hand and asked him to bend his wrist back. His fingers closed. I gave him a small ball to pick up. He grasped and held it. I expected the usual smile of joy but his body shook as tears rolled down his cheeks. “I used to be so strong!” he sobbed. The realisation that he would never be a man again had hit him as hard as the bullets.

The police were still on the scene but now on the defensive. Despite their efforts to justify the shooting, they found that Joseph was carrying his pass book when they felled him, and had committed no crime. Ever. His social worker assured me that he would receive compensation. A white lawyer came to see him during one of his OT sessions. “Tell me what happened” he asked gently. Joseph kept his eyes down. “I don’t remember.” “You remember nothing? Where were you?”. “I don’t remember.”

Weeks went by. Joseph would soon be fit enough for discharge, but how would he manage? He had five children and a wife who would have to give up her job as a maid to look after him. Compensation for his injuries was essential but there had been no progress. My visits to the social worker brought vague reassurances and then the news “The Attorney General has ordered the case to be dropped.”

I went to see my friend Joan, a feisty young nurse who had spent 30 days in solitary confinement, undergoing daily interrogation, suspected of aiding a terrorist. “Believe me,” she said “if I’d known he was a gun-runner I would have cracked the third day.” Now committed to work for political change within the law, she listened to my story about Joseph. “Leave it to me. I know someone who can help. He’s a very, very good lawyer and he specialises in cases like this.”

Some time later Joan phoned me. “We won!” The case had been reopened, the officer who had fired the shot disciplined and Joseph would be awarded compensation.

After a year of denials the police had admitted their mistake.

© Hilary Bradt

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