POVERTY is ugly and cruel. The murders of two-year-old Yonelisa Mali and her three-year-old cousin, Zandile, reminded me of this cold hard fact last week. Their little bodies were found in a public toilet cubicle in Diepsloot last Tuesday 100 metres away from where five-year-old Anelise Mkhondo went missing on 7 September. She was found dead under a pile of rubble on Diepsloot’s Ruby Street.
The murders of these children are indeed acts of senseless violence and chilling cruelty, but they are also murders that occur within a context of extreme poverty. They weigh heavy on us as a nation and remind us of the kind of society we’ve failed to become. Places like Diepsloot, a sprawling township home to more than 200 000 that only seems to make the news during outbreaks of xenophobia, vigilantism, mob violence or child murders, can be found all over the country.
As Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies, Anton Harber, has noted, if you want to understand this country and where it is headed, you need to understand places such as Diepsloot, and the hopes and aspirations of the people who live in them.
In South Africa especially, it’s difficult to think about violence without thinking about poverty. It’s naive to think about the high incidence of violent crime without also thinking about the high unemployment figures.
Understanding the tangled web of cause and effect that potentially links poverty and violence is something that has long frustrated social scientists. But this is no matter for ivory-towered thumb twiddling – children’s lives hinge critically on the answer.
By some accounts, wisdom and strength are born out of adversity. This may be true in a few cases, but such individuals are more often the exception to the rule. The reality is that a life of hardship and poverty can strip you of your dignity. It’s not a matter of judgement or condemnation. It’s a matter of fact.
Seen in this light, our society seems to have fallen prey to a corruption of the golden rule, or the ethic of reciprocity which espouses that you treat others as you would like to be treated. This rule requires that people be capable of ascribing worth to their own lives and of feeling empathy.
But what if nobody has ever ascribed worth to your life? What if you grew up believing that your life doesn’t matter and that positive actions don’t matter? What if the only thing that mattered to you in life is survival because that’s all you know? Would you treat others similarly?
If your experience of life is always harsh, brutal and indifferent, it almost becomes inevitable that you damage others. This is not to excuse the horrific crimes people commit, but rather to try and find the seeds of the violence that seems to flourish all around us in spite of our best efforts.
But apparently we’re not trying hard enough. If you want the scariest indicator we have of this society we’ve created, look no further than your daily newspaper.