Cape Town -
A man contemplating suicide on the roof of Cape Town’s Civic Centre on Thursday fuelled an online frenzy of speculative tweeting across the country, sparking heated debate about mental health awareness.
The drama unfolded with multiple tweets a minute, from the time the man first appeared at around 10am to his capture by negotiators at 4pm.
Mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith said the man was 25 years old and seemed to be a foreigner. The name he gave negotiators was Michael.
“He was very incoherent for much of the time the negotiators spent with him,” Smith said. “He was saying stuff that was outrageous. He appears unstable and possibly delusional.”
The man gained access to the roof through sheer coincidence. According to Smith, he had tried at several other city centre buildings first. At the Civic Centre, he had been admitted to visit a department in the building.
After that he “found his way on to staircases which according to law have to be open because they are fire escapes”. The door to the roof, which was usually locked and alarmed, was instead open because a lift company was doing maintenance at the time.
Smith dispelled rumours that the man was a disgruntled city employee. “That was our first guess, but it was eliminated early on,” he said.
“All employees were accounted for.”
A crowd gathered on the raised taxi rank and the street below to watch the man, who was at one point partially hanging off the edge.
While most onlookers reportedly dispersed around lunchtime, the online crowd only grew more fervent in its following of the drama.
The insatiable online demand for footage and updates reached a peak as some people were apprehended for attempting to fly a remote control helicopter with a mounted camera to the top of the building.
The hashtag #civiccentreman trended, with many tweeters turning nasty in their commentary. Others were quick to scold them, though, and the discussion continued well after the man was pulled to safety.
Comedian Siv Ngesi tweeted from @iamSivN: “Word is that the guy asked for an entjie and a streetwise two! Could this be his final meal?”
@Hey_MissP58m said: “Clicked #civiccentreman hashtag… wish I didn’t. The abundant jokes & lack of empathy about a person’s potential suicide are disgusting.”
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) appealed online for anyone with information to come forward so that they could intervene and help the man.
Peter Dyantyi from Delft had his eyes trained on the roof from 9.30am until the man had been rescued.
The most tense moment was when the man was hanging over the ledge.
“I thought he was going to go down,” Dyantyti said. “I turned away, I didn’t want to watch. But the other people said he must jump.”
One onlooker tweeted about the experience. @kyran_lane said: “Hearing the screams of ‘JUMP! JUMP!’ accompanied by gasps and whistles is something that won’t leave me anytime soon.”
Police spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Andre Traut said trained negotiators on the police force had been used to talk the man off the roof: “Our role was to negotiate him down and we were successful. The matter is now in the hands of the Department of Health. He is in hospital.”