OPINION: A crime to focus the mind

The sad reality of living in South Africa, where incidents of crime are alarmingly common, is that very little shocks us anymore. Our news bulletins and newspapers are packed full of crime stories that cover the full spectrum of offences. And those are only the ones deemed 'newsworthy' enough to actually make it into the reports.

In the past year, we have woken up to news that the captain of our national football team was shot dead. We have listened to reports about toddlers being slain in the crossfire of gang warfare. We have watched as armed gunmen have sprayed bullets in busy shopping centres, members of the public nothing more than the collateral damage of brazen greed.

But sometimes a crime will be committed that will garner sufficient public outrage to make us pause in our tracks for a moment and recalibrate how we see the world. Our perspective will be forced into shifting. On the face of it, that crime may not be the most harrowing or tragic or bloody, but it will cause something in us to stir.

For many, the armed robbery at the Sandton Fire Station this past weekend was such an incident. Three men with guns walked into the venue and held up around 30 parents and 40 kids during a children's party. They stole jewelry and other valuables before fleeing in a car. No shots were fired and no one was wounded or killed, but the impact of the crime was tremendous.

The reason for this is that we feel most vulnerable when we are with our children. When you are in the context of a kiddie's party, surrounded by sticky sweets and shrill laughter, your guard is dropped. More so, when you are in the environment of a fire station where you should be safe in the protection of those whose job it is to protect you. For that innocence to be unexpectedly shattered by armed men waving guns in your child's face is incomprehensible.

What point must we have reached as a society when human beings consciously and with premeditation target children at a party? It is almost impossible not to draw the inference that those criminals must have targeted the fire station because they knew that there was a kid's party underway. The fire station is booked up for weeks and there would be no other reason for them to want to hold up firefighters. This means they had to know that they would be pulling their weapons on the most innocent in society and thought nothing of the consequences. It would have taken one absent minded move by a skittish father, one hysterical decision by a protective mother, one panicked moment that could have seen one of those men pulling a trigger.

In the days after the robbery, some parents began making alternative arrangements for parties they had planned at the fire station. One mother I know created a Whatsapp group on Monday to update friends about a new venue for her son's party - it was supposed to be at the fire station at the end of November. She insisted she simply wasn't going to gamble with safety. Another mom I spoke to said she didn't want the criminals to win so she was going to go ahead with a party for her seven-year-old son there this weekend. Her argument was that she had been a victim of a robbery at her house in the past and the chances of being hit at home were as likely as those of being targeted at a venue. But she planned on hiring in extra private security guards to man the gates and ensure the kids were protected. Where have you ever heard of private guards being hired to stand sentry at a children's party? In drug cartel ravaged Colombia maybe.

Because of the current news cycle, it is hard not to juxtapose this incident against that of Khulekani Mpanza, the suspect who was ' executed' by police officers in Krugersdorp a fortnight ago. The response by many to news of the fire station robbery has been that officers are justified in killing criminals and that they acted appropriately in shooting Mpanza. It shows just how difficult it is to maintain our humanity in light of such an incident.

Some might argue that this robbery has only garnered the reaction it has because the victims are white and middle class, the venue being in Sandton. That may be partly so, but it is undoubtedly an incident that will resonate with any parent who has attended a child's party on any given weekend irrespective of class or colour.

We may have forced ourselves into becoming desensitised to crime - it is a coping mechanism necessitated by the fact that we simply cannot internalise every hijacking and home invasion. But perhaps it is appropriate for us to feel something in response to this particular incident. Sometimes we need to be shaken to our core so that we can be recalibrated and reminded of how not okay something like this is. It is not acceptable for us to live in fear of gunmen holding up our children at a party at a fire station and it is important for us realise this.

Mandy Wiener is a freelance journalist and author working for Eyewitness News . Follow her on Twitter: @mandywiener