Last week two horrific crimes landed in our courts. The Komatipoort coffin case involved two white men pressing down a terrified black man into a wooden casket while threatening to set it alight.
You are likely to know of this racist incident because the media rightly covered the subject on its front pages.
Political party operatives jostled for attention in the open court.
Even the president made space in a speech to condemn the act as “shocking, painful and despicable in the extreme”.
The other court saga was a rape case in Nyanga where 10 men raped a 13-year-old girl; you are less likely to have heard about this second event since most of the media barely paid attention.
So here’s the question: why do some South African horrors receive less attention than others?
It helps of course, to have video-material available as well as snapshot photographs; online newspapers invite you to WATCH, in bold letters.
We are revulsed by the dastardly act for which the evidence is as clear as daylight.
But there is much more to our response to such a stomach-turning hate crime.
We walk with open wounds when it comes to our still very recent racist past.
The country therefore goes apoplectic when a little-known estate agent makes a racist comment about blacks on beaches on her Facebook page; everybody now knows the name Sparrow.
Still, one has to ask “where is the social media outrage with this vicious gang rape that has now left a young girl scarred for the rest of her life?”
Is it because rape ranks less than racism on the sensitivity barometer of South African society?
These are difficult questions but beware of the conservative response to this kind of comparison: “Ja, you talk about the white guys arresting a trespasser but what about rape and murder?”
The goal behind these sentiments is not to draw attention to all crimes; it is to deflect attention away from an uncomfortable one – racism.
These days reports of anti-black racism drives conservative whites into a state of despair and the lashing out often comes in the form of such childish deflection of the “but what about” variety.
Of course all crimes matter.
My concern is why the horrors of rape, such as with this innocent child, do not also stir the passions to boiling point.
Is it perhaps because rape is so common that its very everydayness, so to speak, has blunted the senses?
Perhaps, but then so is racism in the everyday lives of black South Africans.
Why did the president not also come out in this case and say the 10 men should be punished “to the full extent of the law”?
My sense is that we simply do not care as much about rape as we do about racism, or many other crimes especially when it comes to ordinary people such as in these impoverished communities.
Rape happens so often that we at best raise an eyebrow rather than a fist.
Unless of course, rape happens in a posh suburb or a university campus – also last week – and then the media jumps to attention with headlines about what universities should not be.
All rape matters. And yet simply reacting does not help resolve matters.
We have become an outrage-by-incident society. We wait for the next racist act and then one after the other celebrity, politician and any Joe Blow tries to out-moralise the other with statements of outrage for about a week.
Then everything goes quiet again until the next incident.
Racism or rape will not recede because of sporadic noise from across society.
It requires hard work within society itself to change social attitudes and institutional arrangements through a range of interventions.
Jailing racists or rapists hardly begins to alter the pervasive sense of ownership over and disrespect for other people’s bodies.
Starting with young children, core values must be taught through all institutions from the home to the religious organisation to cultural associations of all kinds.
We know this. But even programmatic ventures of this kind will have little effect unless the leaders in our society, from politician to priest to pedagogue, exemplify in their lives a deep and visible respect for the lives of others.
We are not there, yet.
Right now, we are obligated by the sheer act of being human to express our love and support for both the man in the coffin and the girl from Nyanga.
And to change the society that make these crimes possible in the first place.
Professor Jonathan Jansen is the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and currently a resident fellow at Stanford University, US