Pathways to hell, Dante’s Inferno comes to town
Dante’s Inferno comes to town.
Everyone in officialdom blames each other for the fire that killed at least 74 people in the old central business district of Joburg. Most who perished will never be identified from the cinders of their remains left in the ruins.
The derelict, condemned building had been hijacked as a shelter by the homeless and African immigrants searching for the holy grail of prosperity in an economy stronger than their own. Nonetheless, conditions in the squat were deplorable. Maskeshift partitions making for overcrowding and gloom, illegal electricty wiring from outside, water hand carried up the stairs, money going to slum landlords.
In his epic medieval poem, Dante desribes an afterlife in hell and what he calls the seven terraces of sin – pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony and lust – that take you there
From the Zimbabwe experience, compatriots who head Down South for economic emancipation turn to crime when the dream fizzles out. Many are never to be seen or heard from again by their families.
Zimbabweans among the unidentified ashes in Albert Street will be grieved only by families at home who by chance knew where they had been squatting.
(Right: Botticelli painting of Dante’s ‘terraces of sin’ leading downwards to hell)
People are trafficked south on the promise of jobs, as a waitress, as a labourer, only to be denied their travel documents and be forced into modern-day slavery, crime or prostitution, reason enough, out of shame, not to keep in touch with loved ones. The luckier economic fugitives do send money home in informal ways – via bus drivers or frequent travellers they are acquainted with.
So tempting is the promise of good fortune that desperate fugitives from as far afield as Somalia swim the crocodile-infested Limpopo river border to avoid formalities. Once across the river the illegals squeeze through barbed wire and run the gauntlet of border patrols with hunting dogs.
The grass is greener on the other side. Or is it? Nigerians and Ghanaians work the drug tade and brothels. It goes like this: Here, take some. It’ll make you feel better. A week later the soul is addicted. Hence crime and prostituition to pay for more.
Dante’s hell (see the Hieronymus Bosch vision of it below) isn’t done yet with the sins of greed and cuelty. A prostitute tells a church charity that rescued her that she was gang raped and left for dead in a back street after the Nigerian pimp thought she had passed her sell-by date and was using more of the drugs he addicted her to than he liked.
Her stripped, bloody body – inches away from death – was found by a parish priest whose vocation led him into the worst back streets of despair, filth and life’s detritus.
Dante Alighiery got it right all those years ago.
(Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch interpretation of Dante’s hell.)