This article also appeared in Finweek Magazine in their 11-April-2013 issue
I love South Africa and am fiercely loyal to this country. We have so many opportunities here, much more than many other countries. But in 2013 I had an experience that made me deeply question my patriotism. Are we as South Africans losing our humanity? And more importantly, how can we get it back?
On Wednesday the 27th of March 2013, I was finishing off a brisk walk in Katherine Drive, Sandton. Dusk was approaching and as a woman, I probably shouldn’t have been out on my own. However I was in a main road with lots of traffic towards the end of rush-hour, with only a kilometre to go until I reached home, so I thought I would be fine. Big mistake. As I approached the dip where Katherine Drive goes over a river, two men in their twenties came running out of nowhere and ploughed into me. I didn’t have time to react. They forced me onto my stomach and pushed my face into the ground to prevent me seeing their faces. One held my windpipe excruciatingly tight while forcing my jaw wide open, so I couldn’t breathe or scream. The other lay on top of me and bit off my earrings. Then they demanded a cellphone. I wasn’t carrying one, so I gasped: “Take my watch, that is all I have on me.” They ripped my watch off my wrist. However this wasn’t enough. Up to now, all this had been in full view of the passing cars and pedestrians. The two men started pulling me over the grassy mound that stood between the main road and the river down below. With no other material possessions to give them, I could only think of three possibilities at this point: once they got me out of sight of the road, they could either rape me, or kill me, or both. I fought as best I could, but two young men against one woman was a very unequal match. Both men had now made it onto the other side of the mound, about to pull me over with them. Suddenly, they started arguing between themselves. Something had obviously disturbed them. They let go of me and ran down towards the river. I scrambled to my feet, turned around and ran the few metres to the road. To my surprise, I saw another two men and a woman standing in front of me, leaning against a parked red car. Just as shocking as the crime perpetrated, was that these three onlookers had watched the entire ordeal without even trying to help! In my outrage, I wanted to scream: “Why didn’t you help?” However, a stronger instinct pushed me to get out of there. I turned and ran home as fast as I could.
Looking back, I was incredibly lucky that something had disturbed those two criminals on the mound, and that I escaped with my life and only a few scrapes and bruises. However after such a close call, I cannot help thinking that there was a bigger reason why I escaped, and this is why I am writing this article.
Why am I telling you about this, and why in such vivid detail? It is not to ask for your sympathy or your pity. No, my reason is this: I want you to feel the outrage that I felt when those three onlookers didn’t bother to help. If you are a woman reading this, as bad as the violation of the crime, would you not feel enraged at them for just standing there, watching you be violated? If you are a man reading this, would you not feel incensed that they just stood there and let this happen? It could have been your own daughter, your wife, your girlfriend, your sister or your mother. I can understand that the onlookers didn’t know whether the two criminals had guns, and so didn’t want to put their lives at risk for a stranger. But why did they not call the police or shout out to the criminals to stop, or at least have the decency to ask if I was OK when it was over? Have we become so desensitised to crime in South Africa that we no longer have the humanity to help? Is a crime just another sick opportunity to make a mesmerising Youtube video for others to gawk over?
You’ve probably seen the POWA (People Opposing Women Abuse) advert on TV – if not, take a look on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BW30WslahMc). POWA carried out a revealing experiment in a Johannesburg townhouse complex. Posing as a resident, the experimenter played his drums very loudly, and numerous neighbours and residents complained about the noise. Fast-forward to another evening in the same complex. The experimenter played a very loud recording of a man beating a woman in a domestic abuse situation. This time, not a single neighbour complained. Could it be they didn’t hear it? Unlikely. More likely is that people just turned a blind eye and chose not to get involved. Or it could be the bystander effect at play.
In psychology, the bystander effect is a social phenomenon where people don’t help a victim in an emergency situation if there are other people around. The more people that are present, the less we are likely to help. Why does this happen? Because we tend to believe that someone else will help. Think of your reaction to a power failure. If your entire suburb is affected, you’re less likely to report it to Eskom because “somebody else has probably already reported it.” Because of the bystander effect, when there is a suburb-wide power failure and we have phoned Eskom, we’re often the first to report it. In a power failure, all this means is a few more hours without electricity. But in a crime situation, the bystander effect could have fatal consequences for the victim. For the sake of your own wife, your girlfriend, your sister or daughter or mother, I implore you to fight the urge to do nothing. Be the one who stops them. Be the one who shouts for help when the victim can’t. I’m not asking you to put your own life at risk for a stranger if you don’t want to. At the least, phone the police, or film the incident on your cellphone to show the police, so that the criminals can be apprehended. And don’t use police apathy as an excuse for your own inaction. The rural community members in KZN took to walking their children long distances to school to protect them against attack. It can be anything. Just do something to help.
If we don’t, soon criminals won’t be afraid to commit rape or murder in broad daylight. Why? Because they know we won’t have the courage to help the victims. And criminals who aren’t scared of getting caught will spell the end of our freedom. The end of being able to walk with our children in the streets of our beautiful country.