Today I went to visit Pam Mfaxa in the Kliptown squatter camp. Pam is the director of the Pastoral Community Centre and Preschool in one of Soweto’s poorest slums. She has been a good friend for over two years, and I now sit on the Board of the Pastoral Centre. It was going to be a quick visit, to say hello and pick up some budgets. It is late summer here, and it was a hot day. We sat outside her front door on old chairs placed in the dirt, peeling onions and talking. Five minutes into our small talk, a woman in a black-and-white plaid skirt arrived, looking concerned and talking to Pam in Zulu. They could have been talking about a minor annoyance, like having five rand stolen or having to chase the boys away from playing football in a crowded area.
Pam got up, quickly handing off the bowl of vegetables to her daughter. I followed her towards the gate. A missing child’s body had been found by the train tracks nearby and she said we needed to go and find out what was going on. We were among the first to arrive at a short footpath through long grass from the tracks to the shacks below. Pam and another, older woman spoke briefly, and then they told me to go and look to see if it was a body in the grass. I walked a few steps towards a clump of high weeds, and saw a small hand. I took another step and made out the shape of a small body lying there, a blue piece of clothing, a plastic bag on the face. I retreated. It was a crime scene, and the body was evidence. I have never seen such a young victim, abandoned like a sack of garbage on the edge of an overcrowded slum. I kept thinking evidence: it’s evidence.
A woman I interviewed in a Kenyan slum two years ago complained that they couldn’t build peace when dead dogs kept turning up in the trash heaps outside their doors. Here was not a dog, but a ten-year-old boy who had been brutally and unceremoniously snuffed out sometime between leaving his home on Saturday night and the warmth of Sunday sunrise over the worn-out shebeens in Kliptown. It was now midday, about 1pm, and there were no police in sight. Word was spreading, and people starting drifting up the paths to the tracks to look at the spectacle as though it was a museum exhibit or a piece of art at a gallery. I stood blocking the path to the body, hands on hips, and decided that my contribution would be the last little bit of dignity I could bestow upon the victim: a little bit of privacy and the preservation of evidence so the killer could be found.
A few police officers came and went. They seemed frightened and skittish. I questioned one of them about why they weren’t standing guard, and he told me he was in the community to respond to other complaints. He showed me his clipboard, with handwritten notes about a drunken assault and a theft, as though it was a hall pass so he could walk away from the murder. Did they have police tape to seal off the area? No. Had they called for backup? Yes, but they didn’t know when anyone would be there. It was Sunday. More than an hour passed before an investigating officer arrived on the scene with another clipboard, this one holding plastic ziplock evidence bags the size of an average ham sandwich and a pair of blue rubber gloves. There was no camera. The body had now been outside for hours, and a pungent aroma hinted at some kind of decay in the noon sun.
We started encouraging the crowds to move away and let the police do their job, although I felt hypocritical using this as an excuse to disperse people when I felt it so obvious that no one was doing the job necessary to properly investigate anything. Noise from the shacks grew louder, and we heard that people had chased a suspect—the boy’s father—down to the river, and beaten him with intent to kill. Apparently the police had gone to break up that riot first, since the body in the grass was already dead and they wanted to save the man’s life.
As the train tracks started to clear, the police escorted a woman who identified herself as the dead boy’s aunt up to the crime scene so she could see the body and confirm whether it was her nephew. I watched with horror as she took in the hand, the blue cloth, the plastic bag. Silence. Flies buzzing. Then a wailing sound like the end of the world, and she collapsed.
Once enough police were there to secure the area, Pam and I walked back down one of the other paths. There was a person-sized hole in the fence that was supposed to keep squatter camp residents from spilling over their allotted plot of earth. That fence, made from concrete and razor wire, only lasted a month before it was torn apart to open access again to the commercial shopping area. We made our way slowly back to her small home, and got down to the business of budgeting and planning the year for the community’s children who had survived the weekend.