How the ’Bush of Evil’ was born and razed - an extract from Hack with a Grenade
This is an extract from the chapter Missing, from Hack with a Grenade – an Editor’s Back Stories of SA News, the debut book by former Cape Argus editor Gasant Abarder.
My missing children project led me to the Greater Blue Downs area along the R300 highway to the north of Cape Town, and a whole new can of worms that was later dubbed “The Bush of Evil”. The Community Policing Forum chairperson of the Greater Blue Downs had a furious work ethic, especially since this was very much a part-time and voluntary job, but also a fantastic relationship with the management of the Kleinvlei police station.
Malvern de Bruyn knew everything and everyone in the Delft, West Bank, Blue Downs, Blackheath and Eersterivier communities. Malvern took me to a massive expanse of bush the size of several rugby fields. The bush either surrounded these suburbs or was found smack bang in a neighbourhood where there should have been a municipal play park.
What was bad was that the bush wasn’t even indigenous like fynbos or something that the greenies would believe was worth fighting for. What was worse was that the bush area was often used as a thoroughfare by residents. What was despicable was that the bush was used as perfect cover for rapes and robberies, and as a dumping ground for murderers to leave bodies.
Many of those bodies were those of tiny children – many of whom would not reach their 10th birthday. What was unforgivable was that Malvern, his colleagues and the police had advocated for years to have the bush cut down – but to no avail.
And so, the Bush of Evil was born in the Daily Voice – followed by an editorial campaign that would eventually make the public and the authorities sit up and take notice.
Malvern took me around to the parents, often single moms, whose children had been murdered and the bodies dumped in the bushes. It was heart-wrenching stuff and was splashed across the cover and inside pages of the Daily Voice under the headline ‘ The Bush of Evil’.
Karl Brophy, my Irishman editor at the time, reminded me that, if I wanted to make an impact, I was going to have to be relentless. I spent days and weeks in the Greater Blue Downs area doing follow-up stories.
It got a rise from the public, but no action yet from the City of Cape Town. Their comment was simply that the foliage anchored down the shifting sand in the area. It was a cold and callous response in the face of the trauma the community was suffering.
It was time to ramp things up. The problem was that the tabloid master, Karl, was abroad when my missing children campaign needed momentum. He had given me a book to read called The Insider. It was a memoir by former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan complete with a collection of front pages showing how he had handled some of the campaigns that the British tabloid had undertaken.
At the time, the paper was dead against sending British troops to war in Iraq, and his stance eventually got Morgan fired. I remember walking to my flat to get the book, because I’d seen something that gave me an idea that would get the attention of the mayor of Cape Town at the time, Nomaindia Mfeketo.
It was a front page that was stark in its simplicity. A black and white image of then UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, set against a black background, with both his hands in front of his chest and palms facing outwards.
Blood had been photo-shopped on to his hands. The headline screamed, “Blood on his hands”. Morgan was a master of the dramatic effect.
There was a dotted line where readers could cut out the front page and an entry form-like box that readers could complete, sign and then send back to the newspaper.
Morgan had turned the front page of the Daily Mirror into a petition that called on the government to refrain from sending British troops into Iraq for what he regarded as an unjust war.
The stand-in editor and page 1 layout designer, Nic Naude, loved it. What was important was that the Daily Mirror front page worked. There was no reason to reinvent the wheel.
The talented Nic ordered the picture desk to get him a similar image of Mfeketo with her hands out. A tough ask, and we may have to go out to get one, I thought. But the picture desk duo of Leon Muller and Noor Slamdien always delivered.
The following day the petition front page created a stir. There was a picture of mayor Mfeketo with blood on her hands because of her administration’s inaction in not cutting down the Bush of Evil.
The campaign was renamed Kill the Bush. Soon Kill the Bush had taken on a life of its own – complete with a logo. My missing children project finally had the momentum it needed.
The response was unprecedented. Our mail room was overflowing with signed petitions from thousands of readers demanding that the Bush of Evil be cut down.
The newsdesk was inundated with calls from residents in the Greater Blue Downs area with their own stories of how they had been hit by crime in the Bush of Evil. The Bush of Evil became a discussion point on radio stations and the City of Cape Town was increasingly pressured to respond.
Of course, the Daily Voice ‘made a meal’ out of delivering the thousands of petitions to the doorstep of the mayor at the civic centre, with another big front-page splash.
Days later, we had success. I received a breathless call from an excited Malvern de Bruyn, informing me that I should come through to the area because workmen from the city had arrived to start cutting down the bush.
Wow, a bit of advocacy journalism was all that was needed after all.
* Hack with a Grenade – an Editor’s Back Stories of SA News by Gasant Abarder will be available at all good book stores from December and is published by Best Red – an imprint of HSRC Press.