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Healing a nation – lessons from the ‘Modimolle Monster’

Aubrey Masango was born in Mamelodi, east of Pretoria. Educated at St Johns College in Johannesburg and later went to the University of Pretoria to study to be a teacher. He was bored. He decided to get out of the corporate rat-race in 2009 because he did not like the person he was becoming in the BEE scene, seeing it as pretentious and unsustainable. These days, Aubrey is a talk show host on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape talk. His regular show “Talk with Aubrey” is on a Sunday evening at 23h00 to Monday morning at 01h00.

There are potent analogies to be drawn from the sensational case of Johann Kotze, dubbed the “monster of Modimolle”, with the unhealed wounds of apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. These metaphors are thrown into stark relief by the backlash following comments by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Is South Africa open to the lessons of a comparison?

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu recently called the media to order for labelling alleged murderer and misogynist, Johann Kotze, the “Monster of Modimolle”. The man in question is Johann Kotze , a businessman in Modimolle (formerly Nylstroom) in Limpopo. The alliteration of his media moniker caught on quickly.

This man is alleged to have lured his estranged wife, Ina Bonnette, to their home ostensibly to discuss reconciliation. He then procured the services of three black men to tie her up and take turns raping her while they mutilated her breasts. This is alleged to have happened while he held a gun threatening to kill the men if they did not do his gruesome bidding.

Oh, by the way, Kotze is white. You may be wondering why I keep mentioning the colour of these “gentlemen”. Stay with me because this will become clearer as we go along. While this heinous act was taking place, the wife’s teenage son, Conrad Bonnette, Kotze’s stepson, walked in on this debauchery, and was allegedly shot dead by his stepfather while begging for his life. Kotze then fled. A few days later he was caught nearby by members of the local community. So simple was his capture it almost seemed as though he had wanted to be caught. This is belittling the good work by the community, the police and all those involved in bringing this man to book.

In the great excitement of the discussion that ensued about the beastly nature of this crime, the media dubbed this man, the “Monster of Modimolle”. Perhaps an appropriate label for the perpetrator of so cruel a crime. This incensed the Tutu’s lofty sensibilities. The Arch, in his admonishment, reminded all of us, and I paraphrase, that even Johann Kotze, is a son of God and has the capacity for redemption, even sainthood. It is therefore wrong to label him a monster, said the Arch. That would, in fact, be letting him off a “hook of atonement”, the responsibility of guilt as it were. You see, Tutu told us, monsters do not have a conscience and, therefore, do not have to atone for their sins. Judgement and potential redemption are sovereign acts of divine grace and not human imputation. If Kotze was willing to atone for his sin, argued the Arch, then let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Strong stuff. Strong stuff indeed.

However, mine is not to argue the nobility of the Arch’s rebuke, its theological correctness or philosophical validity, although it would be somewhat comforting to know that one’s indiscretions – even those as great as Johann Kotze’s are alleged to be – are forgivable, under the correct circumstances, of course.

It was interesting to witness the public backlash, anger and vitriol against the Arch’s statements. Many said, it was an “insensitivity to the ordeal of the wife and mother,” Ina Bonnette. Others said, the Arch’s words “trivialised” the senseless murder of her son Conrad Bonnette and were indicative of the rantings of an “attention seeking, senile old man”. Those who were more moderate in their criticism said “his timing was perhaps miscalculated because the pain of this experience was yet too fresh in the minds of the population and he”, the Arch, “should have perhaps waited for a more appropriate time to preach his kak!”. This, in a country that is supposed to be more than 70% Christian? Is the Arch not a big Christian guru? Are these not the basic tenets of Christianity, you know, unconditional love, forgiveness and all that stuff? I guess that’s why I’ve waited a little until emotions simmer down before I penned the thoughts that follow.

You see, I would like to draw a parallel between the Modimolle saga as described above, the Arch and South Africa’s reconciliation process after apartheid, if I may. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learnt here. For example, say Ina Bonnette and her horrifying experience represent South Africa and all her people, black and white, under apartheid, ravaged by the consequences of prejudice, violence, alienation and ignorance. While the Arch, with his unpopular message, represents the message of reconciliation in the early 1990s when many rather sought retribution. A message personified by Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, despite the arguments of some that the latter’s part in this was one of forced compromise and not voluntary, visionary inspiration.

In this day and age you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would argue the virtues of apartheid. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone admit to their complicity in supporting and benefiting from what was declared by the United Nations as “a crime against humanity”. This was a crime that was sustained for more than 40 years, brutalising, dehumanising, maiming and killing.

A treatment not unlike that meted out upon Ina Bonnete. This crime was committed mainly by Afrikaner white men, like Johann Kotze. White men with big guns. I’m thinking of the Nationalist Party leaders H F Verwoerd, John Vorster and PW Botha with their army generals and operatives like Eugene de Kok, Dr. Wouter Basson and Dirk Coetzee. Lethal weapons of mass subversion and destruction. It was a crime said to be for the victims’ own good. It was said to help the “natives” of this country discover their independence and self-determination through separate development. This sounds eerily like the logic expressed by Johan Kotze when he said, after his arrest, “I just wanted to hurt her a little bit” as if he was doing her some strange favour.

So as this crusade to “help the natives determine and discover themselves” gained momentum indunas, traditional head-men and chief ministers of Bantustans and homelands were co-opted as “legitimate black leaders” into the apartheid system, sometimes under duress. Indeed, to hold down the masses in the townships, villages and “native settlements” while a white paradise was being constructed. These “leaders” were black men, like Kotze’s “employees”, men who were supposed to understand the plight of their people, but amassed untold wealth and grew fat from the ill-gotten proceeds of corruption. Some have argued that the presidents of the old homelands were in many instances, magnanimous and kind to their people. Perhaps then there is room to think Kotze’s men were forced to participate in this crime, that they would never have willingly done the things of which they are accused. But if the trend of history is anything to go by, they may have started out as victims in a nightmare, but also ended up as willing collaborators. There is always a choice in matters of principle and sometimes the only choice is indeed the ultimate one, rather than to plead victimhood. Many chose death in the struggle for liberation. Yes, I name no names in this part of the comparison because the names of Kotze’s men have not yet been released, but their day is coming too.

And then the chorus of condemnation for the Arch’s warnings must be given some attention in this discussion. These are the people who feel betrayed by all the talk of reconciliation in the country. They accuse Nelson Mandela and his negotiating team of ”selling out” at Codesa to appease “white sentiments” at the expense of the black masses. Similar notions are probably held by certain white right-wing groupings against the “verligtes”. Many of these call for nationalisation of mines and expropriation of land without compensation as a mechanism for economic redress. They passionately remind us of the “crime” committed against “black people in general and Africans in particular”.

Their message, like that of those who have condemned the Arch’s utterances, in the Modimolle case, resonates powerfully at an emotional level especially with those who identify with the pain of the victim, particularly women. They are deeply offended by the suggestion that there seems to be a denial or trivialisation of their collective experience of oppression or victimisation, as perhaps women or as blacks. Even for the most exalted of reasons. They are deeply offended by the call to “move on from the past”, especially when it is made by those they perceive as ignorant of their collective oppressive experience. I wonder what would have happened had the fate of South Africa been left to the whims of these politically and emotionally correct sentiments? Would we be living in a constitutional democracy with certain inalienable rights, even for minorities? Would we have a separation of powers between the cabinet and judiciary? Would the media be able to speak truth to power?

You are probably wondering where Conrad Bonnette is represented in this analogy. He represents the young lives lost on both sides of the war for democracy. The young white men and women, who fought and lost or ruined their lives on the Angolan border under the banner of the SADF and the conscription laws of apartheid South Africa. Youngsters who fought in a war they neither wanted nor truly understood. Conrad Bonnette represents the senseless deaths of MK and Apla freedom fighters, who lost their innocence and youth in a struggle for dignity and equality. He represents the youth of the 1976 uprisings and the youth of the self-defence units in the townships in the eighties, who lost their lives for reasons that were not created by them. Yes, Conrad Bonnette represents the compounding pain, loss, disorientation, frustration of the present and future generation of youth who seek for meaning and purpose in present day South Africa.

Indeed, we must move on. But perhaps the lesson in all of this is that before we suggest remedial solutions for our collective and personal injuries, we must first acknowledge the injury, the injured, its extent and depth of damage. This is the beginning of an authentic healing process. Any suggestion of treatment without understanding this suggests callous ignorance or blatant disregard of the feelings of the injured. This may, at times, make people relive their ordeal and worsen the situation.

We must also remember that for the healing process to come to its desired end, which is good health and normalcy, we cannot stay at the acknowledgement phase forever, the wound may become septic. We must at some point clean, disinfect and dress the wound which, in itself can be an excruciatingly painful phase of the healing process. South Africa is a deeply wounded society on so many levels and the principles of healing apply to us all without exception.

Perhaps we are fortunate to have old men who speak out of turn, but more importantly out of principle rather than expedience. They show us the way to healing, sometimes clumsily so, but consistently so. So, whether the Arch is an “attention seeking senile old man” or a modern day prophet is irrelevant. The question is what does the label I choose to put upon him say about me? The answer to this question will determine the extent of my healing. DM


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