Years ago, my late mentor was giving a philosophy class on moral duties. It featured a thought experiment wherein we had to imagine ourselves on the upper floors of a tower, looking down on somebody being robbed and reflect on how we would react. He kept changing the variables though; what if it was in a crime-ridden area, different ages, races and genders. Despite remembering the content of the lecture well, none of it prepared me to witness the mob justice killing that took place at 21h15 in a dark street on the border of Hillbrow and Berea.
After my daily walk back home from Constitutional Hill, through the smells of a litter removal strike, sounds of street commerce and sights of struggle I’ve never been made to endure, I encountered a fellow tenant of Ponte Tower. A gracious invitation to dinner followed which was met with gratitude and acceptance. Following a preemptive stint in the gym, I collected a bottle of wine and made for my neighbours’ apartment. As we waited for the tagliatelle to cook before adding the proteins, a bottle of champagne made an appearance, followed by bottle after bottle of wine foreshadowing a feast and evening of grand fellowship.
The easy progression of our delightful conversation was abruptly severed by the sounds of a fracas 170 meters below us. We peered outside the window through darkness of the nonfunctional street lights to notice a loose mob of people rushing to collect at an epicenter of mystery. We weren’t certain for the reason of the collection but the sounds described the event as violent and hateful.
The pasta was ready.
What else could we do? There was wine, food and conversation to be had. As I shoved my fork in and rotated it the requisite three times, I recalled the thought experiments we’d done with Stephen years ago. Feeling powerless, as the thought experiment foretold, I exclaimed to my hosts that I wasn’t sure what we could do. We were certain that somebody was being killed below us. We also knew the police were aware because there was a road block closer to the hostility along the ground than what we were to the action in the air.
As the police arrived the aggravators and potential witnesses began to run, leaving a body lying in a street lane outside a service station with only the moon and a police van headlight making it visible to us. Moments earlier it was a he or a she but now, it was simply it…laying there; its sole purpose to cause inconvenience to motorists. It lay there, drained of life and the dignity associated with it, for about an hour before being dispatched to the morgue.
We were disconnected. It seemed like the safer option to take…the psychologically healthier option. It was also easy to be disconnected; we knew not the identity, the reason nor the preceding events. We only knew that there was wine to drink, food to eat, card games to play and what you know is safer than what you don’t.
This morning, my walk to work met with a more sombre reflection than usual. As I endeavoured the 2 kilometre journey, I neglected the usual Offspring lyrics blasting through my ears, clipped my shades to my shirt and took greater cognizance of the same route I’d been travelling since February…the sleeping people huddled under blankets in the streets, the smells which must be penetrating the homes of the half a million people in the area, the refuse translating into treasure for the many willing to wade through it…each of them a person with a story I’ve been too guarded to pay attention to. I have been surrounded by all of this for over a year now but keeping emotionally distant has been easy and appealing.
The lack of a news report on the issue…not even so much as a tweet…is equally telling of how we like to keep so distant. Amazing how a nonevent in the lives of the rest of the world can equate to the loss of the life of another.