Melanie Verwoerd

Why I cried for our beloved country this week

2016-08-24 08:56

Melanie Verwoerd

A few years ago I worked for Unicef, the children’s organisation of the UN. During the four years I was with them, I travelled all over the developing world and often saw things that were done to children that were too horrible to comprehend. Yet, when you work for an organisation like Unicef or have a job where you have to deal with the horrors that children have to endure, you have to train yourself to be empathetic, yet never to personalise. You can't do your job if you imagine your own children experiencing something similar. It destroys you emotionally, and if you are falling apart you can't serve these young people who don't have the luxury of tears in their battle for survival.

However, one day in Rwanda it all became too much. I had been there a few times, but on this specific visit I decided to visit the genocide museum in Kigali. I was familiar with the history of the 1994 genocide, but in the museum I was truly confronted with the horror and reality of it all.

In particular, the section dedicated to children shocked me to the core. The room was filled with posters of the little victims, with their names, ages, favourite foods and activities. They also recorded the last words of the children and how they died. Anane Umutoni loved cake and milk and to sing and dance. She was stabbed in the eyes and head. She was only four. David Mugiraneza, who was 10 years old, was good at football and loved to make people laugh. He wanted to become a doctor. His last words were: “Don’t worry, the UN will come and rescue us.” He was tortured to death.

The most heart-breaking story for me was the one of Fabrice Minega, who was 8 years old. He loved swimming, and chocolate was his favourite food. He always said his best friend was his mum. And it was to her, his best friend, that he called in a panic as he was chased by an angry mob: “Mummy, please tell me where to run to. Please tell me what to do.” He was bludgeoned to death.

After only a few minutes, I had to leave the room. I stood outside in the beautiful commemorative rose garden and wept, thinking of my own children and unable to understand how any human being can do these awful deeds to children.

This week, something similar happened to me, except this time it wasn’t linked to genocide and it was here in South Africa. On August 12, Segomotso Garesape walked her two boys, 6-year-old Kutlwano and his 8-year-old brother, Thabiso, to school just outside Jan Kempdorp in the Northern Cape. They had missed the bus as kids often do, so Segomotso decided to walk them to school. On their way they were confronted by a man who attacked Segomotso and tried to rape her. While he had her pinned to the ground little Kutlwano, with all the strength his little 6-year-old body could muster, tried to defend his mother. She later told the press: “Kutlwano slapped the man across the face and told him to let go of me. He kept on screaming: ‘Let go of my mommy, it is my mommy’ while slapping and kicking the man.”

Eventually the man turned his anger on Kutlwano and in doing so Segomotso freed herself and ran to the road for help. No one stopped, while the man stabbed little Kutlwano repeatedly with a broken bottle. He died on the scene.

As in Rwanda years ago, I wept in despair about little Kutlwano and his mother, when I read this story. I imagined the horror and fear of finding myself and my son in that situation. I could so clearly remember him at the age of 6 with his blonde hair gelled back, Westlife-style, and with an excitement and innocence about the world. I remembered the special bond we had, like most mothers and their sons at that age. And I knew he would have instinctively tried to protect me if anything or anybody threatened me.

But I also cried with anger and incomprehension. How is it possible that a mother can't even walk her two little boys to school in South Africa without the fear of being raped? What has happened to the many men in our country who harbour so much anger that they rape children or want to rape a mother in front of her two little children? What kind of evil will make a man kill a little boy who is frantically trying to protect his mother?

But there are other questions that leave me in despair. Why is therenot a massive outcry about little Kutlwano’s death? The story barely made it onto the inside pages of the newspapers and was a one-day story on TV. How is it that we as a society are not mobilised into action with the horror of it all? Have we really become so numbed by all the violence in our country that a story of a 6-year-old boy who gets stabbed to death while trying to prevent his mother from being raped does not shock us anymore? Or is it that we just don't want to get involved, like all those motorists who drove past Segomotso when she frantically tried to flag them down?

Why are we not seeing the president, ministers, the ANC Women’s League visiting Segomotso and making angry statements? Oh, yes, I forget. The next election is only two years away!

It seems that everything that is wrong in our society is brought to the fore in little Kutlwano’s death. But what we can't allow is that we stop caring, because then we are only one step away from losing our humanity, like those men who were part of the genocide in Rwanda.

As one mother to another, I want to say to Segomotso: “My heart breaks for you. I can't imagine the pain and grief you must be experiencing. Nothing anyone can say or do can make that better. But I hope you know that you raised a boy who became a man in the minutes before he died. He is a hero.”

And to little, brave Kutlwano: “I hope that you are in a special place in heaven reserved for children like you, Fabrice, Davis and Anane. Rest in peace, little man.”

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and SA ambassador to Ireland. 

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