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The sad loss of Jabulani Mlangeni

Ros Atkins Ros Atkins | 10:00 UK time, Friday, 22 September 2006

It's normally a great pleasure to talk to you on this blog, but this is a post which I'm very sad to be writing.

Jabu fighting Fiona for the mic at the May broadcastBack in May, I travelled to Johannesburg with Mark and Fiona from World Have Your Say and two colleagues from the BBC's domestic news and sport station Five Live. Three of the shows were broadcast from Soweto and we asked a number of Sowetans to help us get the shows off the ground.

One of first people we turned to was Jabulani Mlangeni, a brilliant news reporter for Soweto's community radio station Jozi FM. From the moment he greeted us in Nambitha restaurant with a huge smile and a handshake worthy of old friends, he was a joy to work with.

Last week we heard the terrible news that he had been murdered. Shot dead as he walked home from work with a colleague and for no apparent reason. His assailants said little, and took nothing but his life.

Jabu, as he was universally known, was killed on August 31 and his death is not getting any easier to accept. Not for us here at World Have Your Say, and not for many of you in Soweto. His friend, Bungile Khumalo of The Sowetan, has written of her frustration and anger at the pointlessness of his death, and this was echoed by the hundreds who marched in protest two Saturdays back. A community that has known more pain than most has clearly known yet more with his passing.

So on Friday we are going to be paying tribute to Jabu, and ask Sowetans, and more widely South Africans, how a murder like this makes them feel about their country and its society, and how it makes them feel about calling South Africa home. Please do either leave a post here on the blog or just send us your phone number if you’d like to come on the show.

Jabu at the Five Live broadcastJabu made an immediate impact on me. It was back in May and South Africa’s former Deputy President Jacob Zuma had just been acquitted of rape. I was getting reports that his supporters’ celebrations were becoming violent but couldn’t get anyone on the phone who was right there. So I rang Jozi FM to see if they could help. Not long after I got hold of Jabu, who shouting over the noise, he promised to speak with me in five minutes, just as soon as the riot he was in calmed down! And he did, despite all his other commitments. I was impressed. He was courteous, passionate and professional and so he proved to be every time we worked together.

I am well aware that using Jabu’s death as a reason to talk about South Africa and crime opens us up to criticism. Indeed it was criticism we heard during our trip in May. ‘It’s the media’s fault,’ I was told time and again. ‘You exaggerate the crime problem because it makes a good story.’ When we did a simulcast with Five Live and 702 Talk Radio, many of the South African guests got frustrated that all the British callers wanted to talk about was crime. ‘Don’t you have crime in your cities?’ one Sowetan replied.

I can accept the argument to a point. Quite clearly, any murder is terrible and a tragedy for all those affected. And there are many murders in South Africa so why choose to focus on Jabu’s? There are also, of course, violent crimes committed around the world. In fact, just down the road from where I live in south London, a woman was stabbed to death by a stranger in the week after Jabu died.

I should also say that Johannesburg is my favourite city in the world. I used to live there; I’ve been back several times since and find its energy, its culture and its atmosphere intoxicating. And I’m the first to defend it. When I first moved in 1997, by parents kept saying ‘Why are you living there? It’s so dangerous’. ‘It’s not that bad,’ I’d reply. In fact the reason I suggested taking WHYS to South Africa was to try and tackle some of the stereotypes the wider world has. So I’ve no anti-SA agenda here.

This, though, is different I think. To me, Jabu embodied everything that there is to celebrate about the ‘new South Africa’. He was young, hard-working, ambitious, successful and committed to bettering himself and his country. He would argue why South Africa will make it, when others say it’s going to the dogs. He really wanted to tell you about South Africa and the way it was changing.

He also knew his responsibilities. Heartbreakingly, he had a three-month old daughter who now won’t know her Dad. But this was no absentee father. This was a man to whom being a parent seemed to be the greatest honour.

Ever since I heard, silly though this may sound, I can’t help but hold not just his killers but South Africa responsible. What kind of country would play host to the killing of someone like this? What society would treat its most special belongings with such utter disregard? If Jabu can’t survive, then what hope does South Africa have? Does that make sense to you if you’re South African, or am I letting my affection for the man cloud my reaction to this murder?

The last conversation I had with Jabu, he told me about the time two years ago that he’d been stuck in the boot of a car by people robbing his home, driven for 300km at gun-point and thrown into a field. He said he thought he was going to die. So his death was not the first but the second time he encountered extreme violence. Once may be horribly unlucky, twice would seem evidence of a far more serious problem.

When we were in Soweto in May, I was persuaded by all the people who told me South Africa’s crime problem wasn’t what its reputation suggested. I want to talk about it on Friday, but I am going to need far more persuading this time round. The irony is that if Jabu were alive he’d be on the phone telling me to keep believing in South Africa. I’m struggling to at the moment.


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