We are so broken that we cannot respond usefully to the brokenness of our society.  Some of us are still so affected by a past regime that actively disenfranchised us, that to this day we react, or fail to react, from a psychological position of disempowerment.  Some of us are so burdened by the memories of other people’s suffering, about which we did nothing, that the guilt paralyses us and keeps us from helping others who suffer now.  Many of us have experienced direct harm: dispossession, bodily violation, the premature loss of loved ones, that, like a cataract, scars our very ability to see the world.  Most of us don’t know how to be citizens in community: people with a stake in the society and with an active, dynamic relationship with others across all kinds of lines, people who not only know and demand their rights but also acknowledge and embrace their responsibilities, caring for others, tackling injustice, and remaining vulnerable to criticism and correction.  We have not been taught how, and we have certainly not been shown how by our politicians.  To make matters worse, we have not only been mere passive recipients of bad things: we have been the offenders too.  We have done things to others (or for “victimless” crimes, done things for ourselves) that could get us convicted, if not in a court of law, then in the court of our own good name.  We are agents weighed down by decades, if not centuries, of unresolved hurt, buckling and unable to act freely.  We are agents who are dimly aware that if the piercing light of justice were to shine into the moist, dark corners of our lives, it would reveal us to be so bent that we cannot walk straight.

Indeed, the only thing that occasionally forces us to react, however deficiently given this brokenness, is the undeniable: the death of fellow citizens.

My question is: what informs and allows so much apparent lethargy and indifference, even a CYA (cover-your-‘backside’) attitude that leads people to absolve themselves of all responsibility when someone has died under their remit?  What explains our anger and outrage in public when we talk about matters involving people we don’t know, and our ineffectualness when the matter in question touches us directly, involves us and those close to us?

When I heard late last week that a Grade 8 from Parktown Boys’ High School was missing at a school camp at Nyati Bush & Breakaway Lodge, like many people I feared the worst. And a day or so later those fears were confirmed when the body of Enock Mpianzi [1] was recovered by police divers in the Crocodile River.

Refining my question: How can it be that Parktown Boys’ High, despite its “introspection” following a 2018 sexual abuse scandal [2], still reverted to type, telling the Grade 8 pupils to keep silent and speak to no one after it was established that Enock had drowned?  How can it be that Nyati Bush & Breakaway Lodge owner Anton Knoetze could brush off the death as a mere “unfortunate” incident, disclaiming any liability from the start and even implying that the boy was to blame for his own death?  As it turns out, according to news reports, a Grade 12 named Mellony Sias also drowned there in April 2010 while on a hockey camp with her school, Adamantia High in Kimberley. [3] Through his lawyer, Mr Knoetze has denied any knowledge of this event, despite the fact that Anton Knoetze, snr., his father, was the owner at that time.

When a tragedy like an unexpected drowning occurs, the lead-up is in some ways similar to the “error chain”, the chain of events that results in an aeroplane crash.  A number of different consecutive events occur, sometimes simultaneously, often reinforcing one another that contribute to the culmination in disaster.  If any one of the “links in the chain” is broken, the disaster may be averted. [4]  In the case of Enock Mpianzi’s drowning, at this stage it’s not possible to compile the full chain.  However, the chain includes the following reported facts [5]:

  • a roll-call was not taken either as children boarded the buses or arrived at the camp site;
  • life-jackets were not provided to children participating in a water activity in a major river;
  • no adult supervisors were in the water with the children;
  • no roll call was taken immediately after the water activity;
  • children who indicated that Enock had been with them and was swept away were ignored.


It defeats me completely to hear the account of one of the children who was with Enock on the flimsy “raft” or stretcher that the children constructed themselves to carry into the water.  [Whether it was for all of them or just the “injured patient” to lie on in the simulation seems beside the point.]  According to this account, there were no school staff members at the river at all that afternoon.  This child and at least one other indicated to the lodge staff immediately at the river that Wednesday afternoon, and on several occasions later to the lodge staff and the school staff that Enock had been with them and that he was missing.  At least once they were told Enock had not come to the camp.  Only much later – after breakfast on Thursday – did the adults on the scene start to take them seriously and search for Enock, and thereafter report to the police and the education department that a child was missing.

The technical and legal accounts of culpability and accountability will unfold clearly, we hope, over the next few months.

We can widen the question and wonder how it is that so much attention and coverage has been given to this one death, when in the same week [yes, in the very same week – this is how crazy South Africa can be] another child from another Gauteng school drowned, in this case on the school grounds and under arguably more dubious circumstances, and ten, yes TEN, babies died in a Tembisa hospital from an infection in an overcrowded neonatal ward. [6]  Add to this the biannual hand-wringing exercise that is the deaths of dozens of initiates in rural provinces such as the Eastern Cape, and you get a picture that is worrying.

This is not “whataboutism” of which the host was critical when a caller to Friday’s (17 Jan) Eusebius McKaiser Show on Radio 702 made a similar point: whataboutism is characterised by an attempt to deflect attention from a particular matter.  If the echo of the words “What about…?” is too loud to ignore, then I say that my “whataboutism” seeks not to deflect attention, but rather to focus it: focus it on observing critically what we prioritise, and focus it on the similarities between instances; in this case, when Enock Mpianzi drowns, or ten newborn babies perish in hospital, we should note that there is a “chain of events” in both instances.  The caller and I are very clear that Enock Mpianzi’s death deserves this attention; the other deaths (and many others I have not named) require similar attention and pressure to be brought to bear on the authorities.  While this may in practice be impossible, the fact that there is such an imbalance – I do not think I have ever heard even the name of just one of the dead initiates mentioned in the media I consume – indicates that there is something wrong with the “shape” of our attention.  Parktown Boys’ High School holds a place in the minds of 702 listeners that Laerskool Bekker, where Keamohetswe Seboko died, does not.  In turn, nameless black African boys in deep rural Eastern Cape are so distant as to be almost unreal to me.  This is not all “wrong” – proximity (whether geographical and psychological) naturally matters.  I cannot be in mourning over every person, or child for that matter, who will die today. [7]  Even just in my suburb.  But as a nationally influential media player, or a conscientious thinker, one must critically reflect on what aspects influencing one’s perception of proximity (and therefore one’s attentive focus) are appropriate and what aspects are not.  For so many Joburgers, Enock “could have been my child”, and thus there is an easy yet profound empathy, whereas there is a virtually nil chance that their child could attend a poorly managed initiation school (or be born in a lousy public hospital), let alone die at one.

Let’s use an even more general example.  Anyone who has spent a week or more in South Africa will have noticed the low levels of adherence to the rules of the road, particularly by drivers of so-called taxis.  For those not familiar with South Africa, these are public commuter omnibuses, with a capacity of 14-16 passengers, e.g. Toyota Hiace.  The vast majority of drivers on the road have in fact accommodated themselves to the lawlessness of taxi drivers, including the police themselves, who are happy to ignore them, or to receive bribes from them and, occasionally, when pressurised, to arrest them, impound their vehicles, and then quietly receive bribes from them.  But when a fatal crash [8] has happened, especially if it involves children, then we all – police, politicians, Jabu Public – express fury and outrage about the lawlessness that we have watched, blithely, unresponsively, in all the days and weeks leading up to the disaster. [9]

The answer I’m arriving at to my question – what is it about us that makes us so unresponsive in the moment and irresponsible in aftermath? – is difficult and deeply personal.

Deep down, we are guilty.  And we know it.  Yes, deep down, I am guilty.  And I know it.  When we start to ask the hard questions of people in the public firing line, we do it with the full fury of one who is outside the firing line.  I have no direct connection to the school, or the camp, or the education department, so there is no way I can be hit by the bullets, or suffer as collateral damage.  Indeed, the surer I am as one of the accusers, the purer I feel myself to be in my righteous rage.  Any blowback or shrapnel that hurts me will inspire me to shoot even more.

But when this scandal is in my family, or in my school, I then have to reckon with my guilt, or at least my complicity.  If I am inclined to believe that I am a “good person”, then deflection – in performing unresponsively during or denying responsibility after – is a key element in my protestation of innocence.  Blaming the victim – “he and the other kids went where they weren’t supposed to go” or “she was asking for it” – is an amazingly common go-to for the accused, whether or not the victim is still able to speak for himself or herself.  It’s been remarkable to hear former Parktown Boys’ High students and other former schoolchildren speak about the many disasters and close calls they recall from their school camp days.  Few of them went to the obvious but difficult place: why do they speak only now?  How can they not be implicated in the web of silence that ensures that the error chain remains intact through the years, always lurking just out of sight and ready to snare the next hapless child, whose name we don’t yet know?

Going back to the road example, I am complicit in the lax attitude to rules and standards that are in place to keep people safe on the roads.  Speed limits, traffic lights, loading and passenger limit regulations, road signs and markings.  I am complicit because I am also guilty: I am a lawbreaker (who gets away with most of his infractions – speeding, using my cell phone, driving through “dark orange”, as my friend Krisztian so memorably described it many years ago).  And I am complicit because I do not report lawbreakers and insist that the authorities hold them fully to account.  The first reason is that I am a lawbreaker myself, and any reporting will indict myself (at least in my own mind, assuming I can be this honest with myself); the secondreason is that in the moment, for any number of reasons, I don’t care quite so much about justice: going to the police is impractical, inconvenient, or intimidating, and I may be almost “infected” by their indifference and inattention.

The people in the firing line in this matter – the school staff, the camp staff, the education department – have been with us on the sidelines on other issues; they’ve stood alongside us firing bullets at others when other distant scandals have exploded.  Like us, they have not reflected on what is in their own backyard for them to address, on what they are currently guilty of and needing to address.  Direct, unflinching reflection on the self is the work of all of us human beings.  Our very brokenness is a defect that discourages this, because we are afraid of what we will find; because we’ve believed the lies about our own perfection and power and pure self-determination that mask the pain and poverty of the soul; because we are not sure that we can be forgiven, or healed, or reconciled.  Because we implicitly understand that only through being forgiven and made whole again ourselves will we be able to do the incredibly hard work of judging others correctly and compassionately, without minimising the harms done and without diminishing the humanity of the offenders.  As Miroslav Volf puts it: “Only those who are forgiven and who are willing to forgive will be capable of relentlessly pursuing justice without falling into the temptation to pervert it into injustice.” [10]

The subject of brokenness is a deep one for South Africa, and it haunts our every waking (and sleeping) moment.  Many more will die, needlessly and avoidably, in our schools and hospitals, on our roads and in our homes, before we start to take seriously our obligation to deal, personally and publicly, with our own brokenness.



[1] The Citizen has explicitly confirmed this to be the correct spelling of his name.

[2] In 2018, a waterpolo coach, himself a former pupil, was sentenced to a combined 23 years in prison for the grooming and sexual abuse of pupils under his authority.  There was much significant public fallout from this matter, given that more than ten boys were victims and that the school’s approach suggested that its representatives were more interested in protecting the school’s reputation than in dealing head-on with the scandal.

[3] And as time goes on, it appears that there have been several deaths there: as of noon (SA time) on 23 January 2020, news outlets have confirmed five deaths at this camp since 1999 (including that of Enock Mpianzi), all by drowning.

[4] This is why it is quite plausible to assert that we’re just “lucky” that many more kids don’t die during camps like this, or even just during the ordinary course of school activities: deliberately or otherwise, one of the links in the disaster chain is broken.  Safety protocols are implicitly designed to break disaster chains.

[5] From Sunday Times, Eyewitness News and The Citizen, and an eyewitness account that is in the public domain.

[6] Incidentally, overcrowding has been held up as such a major culprit in this matter that one almost expects police to announce soon that they have cornered and captured the dangerous elusive, baby-killing criminal called Overcrowding, and will soon find a cell big enough to accommodate him.

[7] The questions could be asked: “Why not?  Is your heart not big enough?  Has your heart so shaped itself, so accommodated itself, to the wickedness and brokenness of the world, so that it is unable to rebel against evil, and thus make more space for goodness in the world?  Is not your own heart complicit in its effective indifference to today’s deaths?”

[8] Our brokenness is even reflected in the dishonesty of our language: we routinely refer to these as “accidents”, as if they could not have been foreseen, as if all the participants had been innocently, responsibly getting on with arriving at their destination and not in fact driving inattentively, inconsiderately, and/or recklessly.

[9] For example: In 2010, taxi driver Jacob Humphries ignored all the obvious warnings (stop sign, flashing lights, boom closure) at a level crossing in Blackheath, Cape Town, overtook several stationary vehicles and attempted to cross a railway line before an oncoming train.  He and four children survived the “accident”: ten children (ages 6 – 17) perished.  Two of the surviving children recalled in testifying that he had done precisely this same manoeuvre, but “successfully”, on at least two occasions before the fatal incident.

[10] Volf, M.  (1996).  Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation.  Nashville: Abingdon Press (p.123).