It's easier to make the wrong choice than the right one

I’ve reached a stage in my life where it has become normal to attend more funerals than weddings, and more 50th or 60th than 21st birthday parties. This is the normal course of life. People get older, they get sicker and they die, some sooner than others, some without getting ill.

I used to be able to count on my one hand the number of funerals we attended annually less than 10 years ago. Now, it is difficult to keep up. Two hands, I suspect, will not be enough.

In a weird way, we’ve come to accept death as a part of life.

Except when it happens to somebody young and then there are more questions than answers.

This week my mind has been occupied by the death of Ashraf “Ashley” Oosterwyk, who would have turned 30 next month. Ashley, as I have known him from birth, went missing almost a year ago and only last week the police confirmed to his mother that a burnt body that was found near Strandfontein early last year was indeed Ashley. He had been shot in the head and then burnt, it appeared.

Ashley is the son of one of my best friends, Trevor Oosterwyk, and his former wife, Roshni Buckton. He was named after Ashley Kriel, a young Bonteheuwel activist who was killed by police in 1987, a few months before his birth.

We have always seen all our children as being everyone’s children, so Ashley was as much my son as Trevor’s. He and his sister, Maxine (now Malika) spent a lot of time in our home and with our children and we developed a special bond over the years.

But children grow up to become adults and, as adults, they develop their own problems. Ashley, through fate and not by design, I believe, became involved in gangs and addicted to drugs. This is probably what led to his untimely death.

I have no doubt that, given an opportunity, Ashley would have turned his life around. But I also understand the pressure there is on young people on the Cape Flats to get involved in gangs. I faced that same pressure growing up and I have no idea how I managed to withstand it.

Everyone knows that once you get addicted to drugs, it is a difficult habit to kick. Some people spend their whole lives trying to get rid of their drug addiction.

Once you get involved with gangs, it is difficult to lead a normal life afterwards. And once you end up in prison once, and become consumed by the gang culture in our overcrowded prisons, it is difficult to turn back.

My intention is not to question Ashley’s lifestyle choices or to blame his death on anyone or anything. Rather, I found myself thinking what kind of person shoots somebody in the head and then tries to burn the body?

But I also found myself thinking about another young life that has been ended so prematurely, without him being allowed an opportunity to fulfil the potential that he no doubt had, despite his problems. I have always believed that all of us have the potential to succeed in different ways. It is, quite often, a matter of identifying the best path for us. Too many people fail in life because they are doing jobs that are not using their correct skills or interests.

I tried to think about the last moments of Ashley’s life. Did he plead for his life? Did he suffer or was it over quickly? Was he still alive when they set him on fire? These are the painful questions which, I am sure, all those who loved him and his family are wanting to ask but do not know how.

I tried to think about the point at which he veered from the life path his parents had intended for him. I thought about my children and whether they might also have been tempted to venture onto the same path as Ashley.

We laid Ashraf to rest according to Muslim rites yesterday. It is customary for Muslims to be buried on the same day or as close as possible to this, but this was obviously a different situation. The body had been found almost a year ago and had been in a mortuary since.

There are not many ways one can console a parent who has to bury a child. It is, after all, not the natural course of things. Children are supposed to bury their parents. This is way nature works.

My hope is that Ashley/Ashraf will rest in peace and those of us who are left behind will be able to learn from his short life. Sometimes it is not easy to make the right choices. It is much easier to make the wrong choices. No life lived or lost must be in vain and I am sure that his life and death will not have been in vain. Hamba kahle my son.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 13 January 2018)