by Anthony Egan SJ
The discovery of the fifth murdered homeless person in Pretoria should be a cause of concern for us all. It raises once again the spectre of a possible serial killer on the loose. The way in which we respond to such a situation and the way in which the police deal with it will also tell us a lot about how we all view one of the most marginalised sectors of our society.
Many of us in South Africa may have the impression that serial killers are a ‘foreign’ phenomenon, something that happens in the United States. This is not true. South Africa has had many serial killer cases and, as our own famous profiler Micki Pistorius has pointed out, many cases remain unsolved. And despite specialists like Pistorius our police service is overall under-resourced to hunt them down.
My fear is that — unless the police have a lucky break — the search for the ‘homeless killer’ will take a long time.
This may be compounded by public attitudes to the killer’s victims.
Most people, let us admit, regard homeless people as at best a nuisance, at worst a threat. Their presence begging at street lights — and at times it seems like they’re at every street light — is often irritating. Being approached by them at street corners or at the gate of one’s home feels like an intrusion, even a ‘threat’. They inspire in many fear — fear of being robbed or attacked, but above all a fear of the marginal other, that reminds us daily of the growing inequality in South African society.
For, at a deeper level, in this climate of economic instability, they remind us of the precariousness of our own lives. A sudden reversal of fortune, retrenchment, long-term unemployment or an addiction spiralling out of control — and we could all too easily join them on the streets. Are we surprised, then, that our instinctive default position is to try to ignore them?
It would be easy for us to ignore the fact that homeless people are being targeted in Pretoria today. It is even tempting, given that they are a human face of South African unease, to downplay investigating the murders, to focus on more ‘serious’ crimes — for which, please read crimes affecting ‘us’. Even more distressing is the prospect that some may subconsciously feel relieved that the ‘cause’ of our fears is being removed.
This is wrong. Homeless people, following the Bill of Rights and our sense of human decency, are entitled to the same protection as any person living in South Africa. In theological terms they are as much in the image and likeness of God as the ‘rest’ of us. Our hostility to them dehumanises us. Our indifference to their victimisation now will make us in a certain sense accomplices of the killer.
The police have committed themselves to solving the case. We must support the police in any way we can in bringing the killer to justice.