The life and death of Rene
by Andre Marias
This newspaper headline refers to the rape and murder of my niece Rene, 28 years ago. She was four years old at the time of her death on Xmas Eve, 1986. As is so often the case, she knew her killer and he was known to the family. Most likely he used his familiarity and sweets to lure little Rene from her family home, away from her younger sister and older brother who were playing together in the garden at the time. Her killer was arrested two weeks later and, as it turned out, had earlier joined the frantic neighbourhood search on the afternoon of her disappearance.
Now this may seem an all-too-familiar tabloid story and headline these days, possibly from the pages of The Daily Voice or Daily Sun, but if the truth be told the slaying of our girl children has been a feature of life in South Africa for a long time. Rene’s brutal and shocking death back then made it to the headlines, but many other similar cases did not and often went unreported and forgotten. I know this from the droves of sympathisers who were eager to share their stories with my sister after this tragedy took place. But it is a double tragedy that so many other deaths went unacknowledged and were simply buried in time.
The recent sadistic rape and burning of a nine-year-old girl in Delft brought home once again the vulnerability of young girl children in working-class areas to sexual violence from men in their families and communities. All this exactly a year since the horrific rape and murder of Bredasdorp teenager Anene Booysen.
What motivated the killer of my niece to do what he did, I do not know and do wish not to speculate on! But looking back on it now, all the conditions were there for a crime like this to occur. Despite the end of apartheid, the living conditions have not improved much in that part of Eastridge, Mitchell’s Plain, where my sister and her children were living at the time. Working-class communities were in meltdown even back then, when poverty, overcrowding, mass unemployment and broken families were the order of the day. Just like present day Delft, communities were in flux with families moving on a regular basis from all over the Cape Flats.
It’s all still there. Sadly, conditions have even deteriorated, in a downward spiral brought on by worsening economic prospects for the residents there – now fuelled even further by rampant alcohol abuse and nightmarish drug abuse that have left few families untouched. All this is coupled with a general acceptance of violence towards women and young girls, whose lives are not valued. This is further compounded by single-parent low-income households, where neglect of daughters is fairly common. Added to this is a lack of community vigilance and awareness in a situation where caring for the welfare and safety of young girls is often not high on the agenda.
In the mid 1980s Cape Flats, in most cases communities were unstable and insecure, moving into a rapidly expanding Mitchell’s Plain that had been carved out of sand and heat and was flanked by desolate sand dunes. Families were flung in amongst strangers, like in the neighbourhood where Rene lived. This more often than not provided an ideal setting for opportunistic sexual predators, who exploit the poverty and desperation of dysfunctional family situations. Large areas of this township were (and still are) often badly lit, with no streetlamps or roads to speak of and no safe recreational spaces for children or the youth. Although Mitchell’s Plain is now over 40 years old, it is located on the outskirts of the city and travelling into the city centre to seek work can be an expensive affair. Young women and children often bear the brunt of the gang-related drug activity that is always threatening to explode and engulf this township.
Our new post -apartheid society has not made good on its promise to guard and protect our young children from harm.
Then, as now, the police displayed indifference towards domestic abuse and violence directed at females. They devoted no serious attention to step up patrols once alerted to the disappearance of Rene, despite been told she had never before ventured unaccompanied beyond the gates of her house.
This was in an area already riddled with violence, even back then. Prior to her death community concerns about drug dens and shebeens operating nearby fell on deaf ears. The absurd application of the 24-hour disapperance rule complicated the police intervention – just maybe this tragedy could have been averted. She was found at 6 am the following day by her father, with the help of her beloved pet dog, who continued to search throughout the night among the sand dunes close to their home.
Virtually no post trauma counselling was available to the survivors of this grim episode, the effects of which on my family are still evident 25 years later in self-destructive behaviour like depression and alcohol and chemical abuse .The attempts at healing and possibly gaining emotional closure after Rene’s death were often interrupted by family members not accepting or seeking help to deal to with repressed rage. Blame games flow from Rene’s death over two decades ago. We all wrongly ‘pulled ourselves together’ and ‘got on with our lives’ and decided not to dwell too much on the past.
One is often forced to ask oneself what we could have done to have prevented this death, and why it was that my family was singled out for this tragedy. I am yet to find the answer to these questions, but maybe they are the wrong questions. I was a 19-year-old UDF activist at the time. The evening before I received my matric results, which made me the first person in my immediate family to finish high school. What should have been a celebratory and joyous moment I instead recall with dread. Nothing could have prepared me for the news of my niece’s gruesome death.
I have a treasured photo taken two weeks before her death, when she came to visit me. I remember her as a beautiful child, with laughing, smiling blue eyes and flowing golden locks, and with an intelligence and maturity well beyond her brief four years on this earth. Rene would have been 32 years old this year. The greatest tribute to her memory must be to strive and work towards cleansing the world of such evil, and building one that based instead on solidarity. We must construct an environment that values the lives of children no matter what their class or colour is, or their social position or where they live. Please let’s get together and build it.
Hamba Kahle Rene.
by Andre Marais