Daily Maverick

Musician Simon Milliken’s murder – death by delay

Simon Milliken. Photo: Baroque 2000 Publicity Photo

It is more than a week since the fatal stabbing of roundly-loved musician, Simon Milliken, in an urban nature reserve in Durban. Police have not yet been in touch for follow-up with the man who was attacked with Simon, and who had urged officers to continue their search for him – when he might still have been alive. The two had been held up at gunpoint. Milliken was taking a visiting conductor of the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra, US-based Perry So, on a hiking trip in Durban’s Burman Bush. A man produced a gun, then a knife. Only Perry made it out of the reserve. Simon’s body was discovered the next morning.

Story fragments of distress and bafflement about the tardy police response have been in the local and international media, on social media and worldwide music blogs, but like all of Simon’s friends, I want to know more and yet am scared to hear it.

We want to understand how it can be that a police rescue operation did not manage to find a body that was on a trail path, a mere 10 minutes’ walk from the entry to the reserve. I sit down with Perry So, to hear more about the attack and about the horror of what happened in the minutes and hours after that. Perry knew the gun and the knife meant Simon would be in danger inside the reserve. Frantic with worry, he had made an escape from the reserve and ran to the residential area overlooking it. He asked anyone he encountered – a security guard, a shopkeeper and a resident to call the police. This must have been just after 4 PM, Perry says. How did they not understand the urgency? When he was finally able to call police, 40 minutes later, why did it take almost an hour for them to arrive? I see in his eyes that he’s not sure if he’s ready to talk about it, and I’m not sure if I’m ready to hear, but we try.

Simon and Perry had been on a bird-watching walk two days before. Both wanted more of what Durban’s inner-city nature reserves have to offer. Walking towards the Pigeon Valley, the other municipal reserve on the Wednesday, 60-year old Simon Milliken, Durban’s best-known double bass player who moved to Durban from the UK as a founding member of the orchestra over 30 years ago, and Perry So, the 36-year-old maestro, who was born in Hong Kong and whose home is in Boston, US, passed lush suburban gardens. They looked back when they heard a bird chirping. In the dappled sunlight they saw it came from a bird in a cage on a veranda.

You know that there’s only one animal that should be in a cage”, Simon said and Perry responded with “human beings?” Simon nodded. In very little time, Simon and Perry had become warm friends, talking non-stop with a shared love for nature and music. On the Friday, Simon and Perry decided to go to Burman Bush reserve. “The reserve boasts the largest blue duiker population in Durban’s reserves, but the main attractions are the bird and plant life”, says the website for Burman Bush.

Up until early August, the website had also warned of muggings at gunpoint in the reserve.

Burman Bush was as magical as the website had promised: “Simon had heard the chirping of a Black Sparrowhawk and we looked up and saw a Sparrowhawk nest”, says Perry.He was convinced there must be chicks, so we craned our necks to try to see them, going round and round the tree. “One last time”, Simon urged, because it would be so special to see chicks. And then – out of nowhere – appeared a man with a gun.” He demanded they hand over their belongings. Perry complied and laid his binoculars, credit card and hotel key on the ground. Simon, with his sharp sense of justice, said no, the camera was his. The man threatened to shoot them. Simon moved in between the attacker and Perry. “I’m going to shoot you. ‘Then shoot!’, said Simon”. Nothing. He had called his bluff, but the attacker then produced a knife. In a scramble and clamber for their lives, they managed to get away. Or so they thought. Hastening toward the reserve’s exit, Perry looked back and did not see Simon. What follows are Perry’s efforts to raise the alarm and the police eventually arriving.

When he saw police arriving, he rushed to the reserve entrance and urged them to hurry to go look for Simon and insisted on going with them to take them to the place where they had last been running away together.

With police on the scene, Perry was able to contact his hosts, the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra. News that Simon was missing and possibly in danger reached fellow musicians of the orchestra who were performing at Durban’s International Conference Centre at IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s birthday party. Not everybody had heard that Simon was in peril. Later, when friends heard about what had happened, the idea that they were playing for hours on end while Simon was in danger, was upsetting. Did the management of the orchestra act with urgency when they heard about the incident at Burman Bush? Bongani Tembe, Chief Executive of the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra, says he’s confident that he took the right action at the right time. He reported the incident to the security detail at the event. An oboist in the Philharmonic Orchestra and friend of Simon’s, Margit Deppe, left the performance and rushed to where Perry was, with the orchestra’s marketing manager, Reena Makan.

In the following hours, the three witnessed more police arriving, police standing around, police with tiny torch lights, then police emerging saying the search was called off until first light.

The next day, after 7am, artist John Roome, and his wife Nirmi Ziegler, stumbled upon a body while going for a walk in the reserve. Knowing now that their discovery of the body was about 15 hours after Simon had gone missing, Roome is exasperated at the many holes in the response.

We went to the reserve office to report it. They did not know someone was missing and that there was a search action the night before. Their emergency telephone number was outdated, and the police number was for a police station far away”.

Police have claimed they continued the search at first light, which is at 6am. John Roome says neither of the first two police teams who arrived in response to his call knew that a man had been reported missing and that there had been a search effort the night before.

For God’s sake, it would not have taken more than 15 minutes to find him if they had sent a few cops on a different trail each. And yes, I think he could have been saved”, says Roome.

Roome led the policemen to the body. When they realized they needed to take notes, one policeman rummaged in Simon’s bag for a pencil he had spotted earlier and tore a page out of Simon’s notebook for his note taking.

I asked the South African Police Service to outline their actions from the time the incident was first reported to the time the body was found. (At one point, police claimed they found the body). I also asked them to explain how it could be that the body was found not far from where they had been directed to search, and asked them to comment on what seems like the absence of a search and follow-up plan.

This was the response: “Members of the Search and Rescue Unit responded to calls to search for the missing man and searched the area until very late at night. They returned to the scene at first light when the body was eventually found. According to the Police Emergency Services management there is sufficient equipment including dogs and vehicles available at the Unit. The Unit Commander will investigate the allegations against police regarding the searching process. The case is still under investigation and no arrest has been made at this stage. Police are working tirelessly to apprehend the culprit and prevent any criminal activities in the area”.

Their responses ignore some of my questions and those who were present say they are at worst fabrications and at best an indication of incompetence. Because of my need to know more, I got a glimpse into the police response to one murder. There are about 50 murders in South Africa every day. If this police response is representative, then the family and friends of many more people are subjected to indifference in the face of sorrow.

Professor Christopher Ballantine, a musicologist and friend of Simon’s, says the tardy police response and shoddy co-ordination must be officially investigated to prevent future tragedy. Simon was profoundly and courageously committed to helping others”, says Ballantine, “Yet when he was in desperate need there was a shocking lack of urgency. The fabric of our society failed him. If we want to be true to what Simon stood for, we will need to urgently fix that.”

On Sunday, 9September, nature lovers, musicians, among them Perry So and his father, who had flown from Hong Kong to support him during this tough week, artists, human rights campaigners, thinking, caring people – gathered to pay tribute to Simon’s decency, his caring nature, his ability to listen and inspire.

I owe my life to Simon”, says Perry. But Jonathan Milliken, Simon’s brother who had come from the UK, interjects withSimon was being Simon. Everything about his being and his principles made him stand up to wrongs to protect his visitor.”

Simon once described to me what he liked most about a mutual friend – her capacity for outrage at wrongs in the world. The autopsy results, which have not been released officially, suggest a more urgent response could have saved his life. Simon would be outraged at the lack of urgency over someone else’s death.

He might be pleased at some of the developments this past week. The dilapidated entry gate to the reserve has been fixed. Plans have been announced to fast-track a R5-million fence around Burman Bush, where there have been many muggings with the same mode of operation. His is the third murder in four years. John Roome and Nirmi Ziegler, who discovered Simon’s body, have been going back for walks in the reserve, taking a stand to preserve the green lungs of the city.

Perry says even if  it takes time to shake off the guilt, he’s already learnt so much.“There’s a moral clarity to Simon’s life. His death has left us with so many questions. One of them is how do we live up to his example.” DM

Ida Jooste is a journalist and was a friend of Simon Milliken’s. She does journalism training for the NGO Internews.

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