Youth hold mirror to society
Phumla Matjila: Youth is truth, said the Pulitzer-winning James A Michener in his 1970s novel The Drifters.
Until last week I didn't know the truth about South Africa - or its youth. By "youth", I'm not talking about the nearing-middle-age men and women of our ruling party's youth movement: I'm referring to children of school-going age.
If youth is truth, then we are a society that has been raised - and is raising its children - not to respect women and girls. Men don't respect women. Women don't respect other women. Lack of respect for women is the norm.
Our youth showed us last week what a sick society we are. And it is not only the youth from poor, black families in squatter camps or over-crowded, crime-infested townships that are a problem. Youngsters from the mansions of Bryanston too commit the most gruesome sexual violence against each other.
The Mail & Guardian reported that violence against girls is common in South Africa. The newspaper compiled a list of school rape cases reported by the media this year. The victims were as young as seven, the perpetrators as young as nine. The schools were in areas as varied as our socio-economic landscape.
When will it end? How can it end when our children hear adults say: "Some women enjoy being raped" or "they asked for it"? Why do we shudder when they repeat the words they have heard us say?
Last week, a 15-year-old girl was allegedly gang raped by boys at school. Some of her schoolmates recorded the assault on their cellphones. The video is being distributed widely on a mobile social networking site. A debate is raging among her peers about whether it was "rape", given that she was said to be drunk.
The public has expressed outrage and called for the law to take its course. It did, and swiftly. But the two boys arrested in connection with the alleged rape have been released because there was not enough evidence to detain them.
We focus so much on justice being served that we miss a golden opportunity to deal with the ills of our youth. The departments of education, the departments in the safety and security cluster, women's and children's groups, and the new ministry created to deal with women's and children's issues missed an opportunity to talk to all teens about what it means to be a bystander when a crime is committed.
They missed an opportunity to talk to schoolchildren about the cost of keeping quiet when one of them is being degraded, hurt and sexually exploited.
We missed an opportunity to educate our children about child pornography and the crime they committed by taking pictures and videos of the alleged rape.
Most important, we missed an opportunity to reject and condemn, once and for all, any comment that blames the victim of rape in any way, and to challenge and shame those who blame the victims for being raped.
There's a scared, scarred 15-year-old girl who is contemplating suicide. There are boys who are accused of rape. There is a group of schoolchildren who might be accessories to the rape because they did nothing to prevent it. There are teachers who didn't even realise anything was wrong.
It is not too late to teach our youth a different truth.