As a journalist, I could rise to any challenge without getting personally affected. At least, that’s what working in the media industry for 15 years led me to believe. But, there was a story that changed everything. It wasn’t just another story. It was reality that hit too close to home, literally.
Nine year old Shahiel Sewpujun, initially reported missing, was found dead in a manhole. His aunt and her mother, who the day after his so-called disappearance attempted suicide with brake fluid, were eventually charged and sentenced for his murder. As readers of the POST, you know this. It made headlines many times.
Why was it so painful for me?
I live in Phoenix. So did Shahiel. I have a son a few years younger than him. Like Shahiel’s mother, I too packed my son’s lunch and went to work that day. I came home to my son. She did not. She never will.
As a journalist at SABC Newsbreak on Lotus FM at that time, I was there when police pulled Shahiel’s battered body from the manhole. There were hundreds of community members there too. They, in fact, had discovered his body. For all the labels the people of Phoenix have to bear – from being a crime-ridden area to a drug haven – I can tell you that the spirit of community that prevails is stronger than any label. I saw this that day. They came together to protect one of their own. But this innocent boy was killed by people he lived with and considered his own.
Like these community members, I left the scene with more questions than answers. I remember coming home with a heavy heart and taking a shower. Later, as I sat down and tried to make sense of it all, I heard the azaan – Muslim call to prayer. I have always loved and respected the sound of the azaan. But that night, the azaan brought me a sense of peace. The next day, Shahiel was buried according to Islamic rites. I tried to make peace… that this little boy was no longer part of our world.
In the week that followed, I cried every morning. I tried not to. But, I could not fathom how anyone could have murdered him and then covered it up. The post mortem revealed that Shahiel died of blunt force trauma to the head and smothering. How painful for a nine year old to bear all this? And worse, for adults to perpetrate such a heinous crime.
As many grappled with this, the Newsbreak team worked closely with teachers at Shahiel’s school, the Phoenix Child and Family Welfare as well as community activists. We reported on the many initiatives to raise awareness about protecting children and also hosted talkshows to create greater understanding. This, as the case of the two murder accused was before the courts.A year after Shahiel’s murder, I visited the school and spoke to his teachers and his best friend. It broke my heart, all over again. This little boy looked at me with piercing eyes, talking about fond memories… they would play together at break time, eat together and they would talk about cars. He described Shahiel as happy boy who loved school. He said he felt sad about what had happened to Shahiel and missed him very much.
Childhood is meant to be fun. It’s meant to be simple. It’s meant to be the best times of any child’s life. How did things go so horribly wrong for Shahiel?
We don’t know. Perhaps, we never will.
In 2016, Judge Dhaya Pillay sentenced then 56 year old Rajnanthie Haripersadh and her daughter, 32 year old Kavitha Naicker to 25 years and life imprisonment, respectively. While there were many rumours about why Shahiel was killed and even one version that it was an accident, the court could not find a conclusive motive. It’s a travesty that even after the overwhelming evidence against them, they could not be honest about what really happened on that day.
This month marks three years since Shahiel was brutally murdered.
Personally, I have never been the same since then. I am no longer at the SABC, but I am still a journalist; a journalist who wants to be more involved. Yes, I have blurred the lines. I know I will be lambasted for this by some. But I do see journalism as a form of activism. During the apartheid era, journalists were brave enough to report on the brutalities of the system and even be jailed for simply voicing the truth, be it on paper or on air. Their work contributed to greater awareness of the unjust government at the time and they conscientised the world.
Why should I be afraid to write about the social evils that South Africa is facing today?
There are many, but none as disturbing as the violence against children. Raped and robbed of their innocence, hit by stray bullets in gang fights and murdered by strangers or people they know and trust… this is the plight of South Africa’s children. There are many organisations working tirelessly to change this. Their voices need to be amplified, not just on social media, but in mainstream media. These messages about protecting children need to reach communities at grassroots level. And it must not happen during Child Protection Week or the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children only. It has to be on the national agenda 365 days. Schools too need to be fully engaged so that children at risk are encouraged to speak up.If journalism can be a vehicle to drive all this forward, then I’m not hitting the brakes. I will keep writing and keep pushing for a safer South Africa for our children. If we at least try, in our own little ways, together, we can save another child from the tragedy that befell Shahiel Sewpujun.