The Big Read: Don't look away
Once, when I was a kid I joined a search party. I was at cub scouts on Friday evening with Tommy Renyard and Kevin Scrooby when the scoutmaster asked us to help search the bush next morning near the old army base.
After I'd made sure we'd be allowed to wear civvies, I signed up. You could get away with being a cub scout as long as you never actually wore your cub scout uniform in front of any kids who weren't cub scouts. Woggles and neckerchiefs and your shirt tucked into your shorts is a bad look for a young boy who wants a quiet life.
The bush near the old army base was dense coastal forest. It went on forever. We went to play there sometimes but usually we didn't tell our parents, even though our parents then weren't like our parents today. We were 10 years old and we left the house in the morning and came back at night and as long as we didn't accept rides from strangers or play inside abandoned fridges, they didn't much care what we did in between. All the same, they didn't like us playing in the bush near the old army base.
I can't remember whether we were looking for a little boy or a little girl - I'm not entirely sure they ever told us. All we knew was that some kid hadn't come home and must have spent the night out there, and now we were all walking abreast and combing the bush. It wasn't easy to walk abreast through the bush. It's not like a field - there are tangled branches and thickets and in some places you have to bend double or crawl along on hands and knees. You're completely enclosed overhead and you can't see more than a metre or two in any direction. There are fire ants and millipedes and things that rustle. We stamped and clapped our hands to scare away the snakes.
We wanted to find the missing kid because just think what fame and credit would attach to whoever found the missing kid, but I don't remember any of us feeling scared for them. Kids aren't always good at thinking their way into the lives of others. If we don't find her, someone else will. If he's not there, he'll be somewhere else. We couldn't bring ourselves to think about what had happened, to really think about what had really happened. It was like staring into the sun.
That night, at home after my bath in my jammies, snuggled up after supper, maybe watching Magnum P.I., I hope I thought about the kid out there in the dark. Thinking doesn't help, but I hope I did.
This week in Cape Town a 16-year-old girl named Franziska Blöchliger took a 20-minute jog through Tokai forest. Her body was found not far away in the fynbos.
There was shock. Top cops were called, investigators hired, rewards offered, vigils held, news-feeds updated and every bit of that is appropriate and right. Indeed, there should be more - the skies should open in horror, angry winds should scour the earth, we should none of us be able to close our eyes for fear of visiting in our minds the unthinkable terror of a murdered child.
A week ago a 19-year-old girl named Sinoxolo Mafevuka left her home in Town Two, Khayelitsha, at 8pm on a summer's evening. The next morning her sister-in-law found her body in the communal toilets barely 100m away, her jacket covering her face.
There was no shock, no top cops or media updates. Sinoxolo lived in a home with no toilet, and she had to walk 100m to the toilet, and when she needed the toilet at dusk she had to decide whether it was still light enough to go without running too unacceptable a risk of being raped and murdered. It's hard to think about that because if we really thought about it, how could we bear it? The horror of how she lived is too great, let alone how she died. So we avert our eyes.
Kids shouldn't stare into the sun, but we are adults. Adults made the world that does these things, adults made Tokai and Khayelitsha and the gulf between them, adults made the men who did what they did to Sinoxolo and Franziska and that kid on the Bluff whose name I never even knew, and adults owe it to all of them to be adult enough to look directly at what happens to women and to the poor and to children, to look without looking away or becoming distracted by ourselves, because how can we look directly at what happens to them without trying to do something about it?