A day to remind us how easily we forget

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 December, 2012, 3:41am

Exactly eight years ago as I write this I received an urgent call from a friend on holiday in Thailand. At that time, I was sleeping off the effects of the previous day. It is quiet at this time of the year in South Africa, when the country goes into deep aestivation, from the public holiday a week before Christmas until the first working day after New Year's Day.

My friend was in a resort which had just been struck by the tsunami triggered by the 9.3-magnitude earthquake off Sumatra. After establishing that he and his mates were safe, he had decided that he needed to tell a journalist, on the assumption that this would be a big story, which was prescient of him. As you may recall, not everyone immediately grasped the significance of what had happened - how could we? That became apparent only over the following few days, as reporters reached the remoter parts of Aceh, which until then had been off limits to foreigners.

After my friend's call I rushed to work, but was unable to summon anyone else to come into the office. In any case, the newspaper that I worked for at the time had suspended publication until the first weekend in January. From Johannesburg, I wanted to alert our coastal bureaus to the fact that a tsunami, travelling at the speed of an airliner, would hit the South African coast in 12 hours. But all the numbers I rang went unanswered. None of the local media picked up the story either.

As things turned out, it was established a week or so later that the tsunami had indeed claimed lives along our coast, almost 9,000 kilometres away, on the other side of the Indian Ocean. The number of people killed in South Africa - between two and eight, depending on which Wikipedia entry you choose to believe - is negligible but theirs were lives lost to ignorance, partly because the media, in the grip of the annual holiday season, were offline.

Yesterday the wires were silent about December 26, 2004. Today's lack of coverage is of course due to the fact that it is Christmas once again, and that eight is not usually a newsworthy number. We will have to wait two more years for the next bout of tsunami coverage, for the 10th anniversary retrospectives - unless something else more pressing distracts us from this season of torpor.