In that moment we reverted to what Apartheid made us: I was the white madam with all the answers, the armed gunmen were the black staff, bound by society’s dictates, to let me lead. This was a script I knew how to follow and so I led.
I was held at gunpoint by a gang of armed men who took my family and I hostage for around two hours, while ransacking my house, repeatedly threatening me with rape, shooting at my husband at point-blank range, and tying up my daughter who was eight at the time.
Through it all, I retained an air of calm, a quiet isolation from the violence happening around me. I drew on that intangible ‘thing’ we don’t know we have until we are in a situation that requires it. I took control of the situation. I spoke to the men calmly but firmly, directing the play in a way that I couldn’t fully appreciate until it was all over.
When one of them tried to throw me down on my bed, and told me that, if I didn’t give him gold, he would “stick me”, I calmly removed his hand from me, and said: “No, we don’t behave like that. We are not savages and we are not doing this.” I spoke to him much like I imagine Catholic nuns do to errant schoolchildren; the way I would have told my gardener to plant the lemon tree there not here.
Throughout the ordeal, I touched each of the men who was robbing us. I put my hands on them, I rubbed their backs to calm them when they became agitated and I took their hands in mine when they were anxious. The intimacy of those few hours and of the physical contact between us, is difficult to describe.
In that moment, we reverted to what Apartheid made us: I was the white madam with all the answers, they were the black staff, bound by society’s dictates, to let me lead. This was a script I knew how to follow and so I led.
Within an hour, they were calling me “Madam” instead of “white bitch” – which they had called me when I wouldn’t lie still as they had instructed me to. Whereas early in the evening they had said to my husband “you are no longer baas”, now, when they tied me up on the floor, they put cushions down so that I would be comfortable. This was a privilege they did not extend to Albert and Dan, my grooms, whom they beat, until I intervened, and said: “No, we are not doing this.”
When they tied my daughter, they called her “my baby”, and stroked her hair, much like I would have done, chuckling and saying “the little madam is brave”.
I played to it because it was a role I understood. As much as I loathe what it says about me and what it revealed about my own ability to interact with black people in this way reflexively, it offered me a powerful insight into how our society works. It showed me that white privilege had its hooks in me no matter how much I would like to deny it. It also demonstrated how powerfully that privilege shapes the interactions between black and white South Africans. Even when a robber had the power to physically harm me, I had white privilege on my side.
I don’t know why they allowed it, why they stepped into it too. Learned helplessness? That human tendency to revert to situations we know, even when we hate them? Afterwards, I vomited every time I thought of it. I bathed five times a day, scrubbing myself raw, not only to strip myself of the trauma, but also because I desperately wanted to strip myself of that which I had so easily become – the white boss.
Over a period of about 10 months, two gangs (including this one) attacked almost 50 homes in our area. Our neighbours were beaten, raped, I’m told that a couple was killed. One woman was raped right next to her four-year-old son.
Yet we were physically unharmed. The police could not account for why we were treated differently and for a while I couldn’t either. I told myself that it was because I treated them with respect, because I spoke to them kindly and remained calm and did not fight. That is partly true I am sure. And yet I also felt a growing sense of rage.
For the next year, I was angry. I was angry with my friends, with my family, with myself. I was angry with the world. I tried to dismiss that anger as post-traumatic stress disorder but it was more. I wasn’t just angry, I was afraid. And I wasn’t afraid that they would come back, I was afraid of the woman who had reverted to a caricature of the white madam in a time of distress. How could I be that person when so much of my identity was based on not being that kind of white South African?
The experience brought me face to face with the reality that as a white person in South Africa you can engineer virtually any situation to your benefit because it simply doesn’t occur to you to operate in any other way. You expect that black people should treat you in a certain way because, well … you are white and you deserve it.
I have agonised over sharing this. It is intensely personal. It also seeks to impose on black people to whom I have no access, a narrative that could be wrong –Because the reality of that night could have been very different for them. Perhaps they were moved by compassion when my daughter was so honest with them, and engaged them. Perhaps they were moved by my willingness to extend a hand to them, physically. Perhaps they just hit us on a good night.
The point is, I have a right to share my experience for a whole range of reasons, but I no longer find myself willing to speak on behalf of black people. The arrogance of whiteness is that it teaches you that you can understand and interpret everything through your own lens. It teaches you that you can be someone else’s lens. Worse, white privilege makes you dismissive of what you cant understand or re-state.
The men were captured and I, together with Albert and Dan, joined many of our neighbours in enduring an identity parade, to identify them. Identity parades in South Africa are intensely traumatic. You have to physically enter a room and physically touch the people who harmed you, and stand and have your photograph taken with them. That is, itself, a form of trauma.
The men were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. When I found out I was immediately assailed, not with relief, or a feeling of victory, but with a sense of sadness. It occurred to me that these men will never get a second chance. They have gone to jail for life. In South African prisons, that’s hardly a welcome sentence.
I think about the perverse humanity they demonstrated that night. I think about how what drew us together that night was a shared humanity; a spark of something we recognised and respected in one another despite the fact that we were meant to be adversaries.
I wonder of course, if they might have chosen different paths if they hadn’t been born and raised in a system that made things so hard for them. I wonder whether their hearts are not hardened because our legal system has decided not to give them a second chance.
But mainly – and I have the luck to be able to say this because our family got off lightly – I am grateful to them for holding up a mirror to my soul and showing me the person I no longer wanted to be. If they had killed one of us, if I had been raped that night, my perspective might be different. I hope not, but it is possible. But it wasn’t different and so I can only say that I forgive them and I am sorry that their path brought them to this place. To their other victims, who suffered more pain at their hands than we did, and whose emotions and reactions I respect, all I can say is that I hope they can still find it within themselves to love and to forgive. For their own sakes more than anything. DM
"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." ~ Salvador Dalí