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[OPINION] Mihalik’s gang-style death shatters suburbia’s blissful ignorance

There was no Halloween for the families, children, and parents affected by the shooting of advocate Pete Mihalik because the horror that unfolded before them on Tuesday morning was all too surreal and ghastly.

I saw the horror on the faces of the Reddam House staff on that bright morning as I dropped off my son at the Green Point school. As a parent of a child in the school, it was an expression I shared when I found Mihalik's son was wounded, but as a journalist, I tried to hide that expression.

I arrived not more than 20 minutes after the shooting took place. Police had already secured part of the crime scene and rolled out the dreaded yellow police tape. Teachers tried to reassure parents and corral learners into their classrooms before they locked down the school. These are honest, hard-working teachers who devote their lives to nurturing our offspring. They’re just doing their jobs, and to see one of their parents and learners attacked in such a brutal way, just metres from the school, must have shocked them to their core.

Drive-by shootings and ambush assassinations are part of the lexicon of a world different to the Atlantic Seaboard in Cape Town. It’s one of the richest tracts of land in the country, a swanky area where larger-than-life SUVs clog up narrow roads, and sought-after apartments continue to expand almost daily. By and large, bullets don’t fly here.

Not as much as they fly on the outskirts of the city. Mostly, those bullets kill youngsters in poor communities like Bonteheuwel, Mitchell’s Plain and Lavender Hill, where there's inadequate policing and no way for residents to protect themselves when the authorities inevitably fail them. In these areas, you’re considered lucky if the police actually arrive.

They are the real victims here - the men and women, boys and girls - who come face to face with death by gunfire every single day, and yet we somehow don’t make the connection to these deaths, and what happened in Green Point on Tuesday.

Mihalik defended men accused of putting guns on the streets and into the hands of these gangs, directly or indirectly putting innocent people in harm’s way. In theory, it’s easy to dislike Mihalik, but who I am to judge? Here we were, journalists hovering over the murder scene of a prominent advocate and father, waiting for his lifeless body to be removed from his vehicle, so we could take pictures. It’s a job, and someone must do it - just as defending alleged criminals was Mihalik’s job. He made a choice.

When Mihalik’s former partner Noorudien Hassan was gunned down outside his Lansdowne home two years ago, Mihalik had this to say: “He (Hassan) believed that everybody had a right to a fair trial, as our Constitution demands. He was prepared to fearlessly defend that right.”

The job that Mihalik did is a fundamental part of our justice system: the right to legal representation and the right to a fair trial. Without it, there is no justice, there is only a kangaroo court. In a country where the ordinary citizen is fed up and shows disdain for criminals, Mihalik chose to defend the accused.

How far his involvement in his clients’ dealings extends is not for anyone but a court of law to decide. Too many of us want to decide the fate of those whom we know nothing about.

I didn’t know Pete Mihalik personally. I’ve seen him on the school run from time to time, seen him at a birthday party once, greeted him, admired his fancy car. And that was the extent of the interaction most busy parents have these days anyway.

Shamefully, a part of me was relieved that this appeared to be a planned hit and not a random act of crime that could occur again – although one never knows.

As a parent, you begin to empathise with the family, and his children. What if that was my child? What if this happened on the school property? What if more children were hurt in the commotion? How do I explain this to my son? How do I explain that a boy in his school was shot and injured, and his dad has died?

Strangely, it feels like our empathy extends only as far as it affects our own daily life experience, and the more we cushion ourselves from the sharp edges of crime (organised or not) in our country, the less we feel for others, and more distrustful we become of strangers.

Maybe we should start by showing concern for those at the sharp end of the conflict between gangs and warring taxi associations, the women who live this experience every single day. Maybe we should care for the safety of all learners, the boys and girls caught in the middle of gang wars on the Cape Flats, and the children killed on the playground.

It’s ironically called the underworld, yet its powerplays and acts of street justice take place on a public stage, with gunfire ringing out in restaurants, nightclubs and even airports. It’s a world that operates on a level most of us cannot fathom. The corruption, racketeering, and extortion – the money. I know little about that world apart from what is written by brilliant journalists like Caryn Dolley and Mandy Wiener. I don’t care for criminals.

By and large, the daily death of another teenager on the Cape Flats doesn’t affect this side of town. Mostly we’re oblivious to the bodies that pile up between gangs in Mitchell’s Plain, Bonteheuwel and Ocean View. There’s a numbness to the pleas for help when residents call for a total shutdown and block off roads in their crime-ridden areas – until the chaos of the gun-running and racketeering built in the ganglands delays the morning private school run in suburbia. Somehow, we struggle to reconcile the two.

The names of Jerome 'Donkey' Booysen, Nafiz Modack and Mark Lifman are not whispered in these coveted streets, not like they are when a gang member is killed in Bishop Lavis, or a mother and child are caught in the crossfire week in and week out.

Mihalik lived in a world far removed from the struggle of those young men and women who tread the line between life and death on a daily basis, and yet he met a similar end as many of them.

None of us come out of this looking squeaky clean. We all have a job to do. It seems the police and crime intelligence have a job to do too - if only they’d do it better.

The wealthy need to open their eyes and minds to the concerns of those who are less fortunate than them. The bubble is a fallacy, it will not keep out the evils of this world - not on a school run, not on a short walk to the shop.

We cannot be unaffected, while our inaction and lack of empathy go unchecked.

Adrian Ephraim is deputy news and sports editor at Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @AdrianEphraim

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