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The Other News Round-Up: Life is a mystery

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you some of the more peculiar happenings from South Africa and further afield. This week: what makes people hurt their nearest and dearest?

[Ed’s note: This article includes discussions of violence. The content may not be suitable for all readers.]

It’s been a week of mysteries great and small – if for now only the how, not the why. I’m not talking about the daily, run-of-the-mill mysteries of being a South African: the usual stuff, like why Ben Ngubane and Hlaudi Motsoeneng had jobs at all, for instance. Or why Malusi Gigaba took the time to define the #GuptaLeaks as a “spurious sideshow”. I’m not Jessica Fletcher and I have limited time to write this, so for now those particular mysteries are going to have to go unsolved.

I mean the shock revelation that forensic investigators were combing Blythedale beach, north of Durban, for the remains of three of Gert van Rooyen’s victims, some three decades after he shot himself and his partner, Joey Haarhoff. Which, incidentally, always struck me as a great indication of his epic assholery. His crimes are one thing, but to take one’s exit the second consequences and answers are due – and sommer taking your partner out with you – well. That’s just putting a whole new layer of cowardice and cruelty on top.

Or the much-debated video that was eventually screened in court this week, showing businessman Christopher Panayiotou discussing a hit on his wife Jayde with alleged middleman Luthando Siyoni. In the video, Panayiotou appears to have his unmentionables in a twist because “it looks like a hit now” instead of a robbery, as planned.

The defence can still state its case, but I wouldn’t want to be in Panayiotou’s shoes after that was declared admissible.

I don’t know about you, but I always get an odd, squirmy feeling when I hear that stat about 8 out of 10 murders being committed by someone the victim knows. What if happens to me? I think. And then I think: Which one of you putzes does it? Naturally, I am a hit at parties.

It’s a rather unpleasant, Kojak-like thought process from there, only with more hair, even more neuroses, and zero ability to parallel park. How many times have we sat in a room with someone who may want to whack us over the head or wander down to the local watering hole to pick up a hitman? How many people are right now placidly making breakfast for a person who wants them dead? In my head, it turns into Agatha Christie meets Cluedo very quickly, only a whole lot less fun. Who’s next? Who’s going to get stuck with Colonel Mustard in the library?

Most of us, I think, have a dim awareness of stranger danger: we lock the doors at night, we are careful at the witching hour. But there’s a special kind of chill that runs down the spine when you think of being taken by surprise by someone who walks among us looking just like everybody else. (And they really do: I’ve checked. It would be awfully nice if people came with labels or the obligatory Dickensian unattractiveness to match a mean streak, but sadly it’s no go.) Even one of Van Rooyen’s victims, remember, was a relative of Haarhoff’s, which gives me the same nauseous twinge I got when I read about the murder of Courtney Pieters, allegedly by the close family friend down the hall. There’s nothing like a spoonful of betrayal to wash down a lifetime of grief.

And then there are the disturbing statistics on spousal murder: one in three women murdered in the US is killed by their spouse or partner; in South Africa, half the women murdered are killed by their intimate partner. Who are they, this person who looks you in the eye, greets you lovingly, and blithely cuts the cord?

My partner, understandably, finds it a little unsettling that I am perpetually glued to the crime channel or Forensic Files, particularly when it comes to family or – more common still – spousal murders. But I’m honestly trying to figure out what makes people do this sort of thing when there are divorce lawyers gagging for business around every corner. I’m searching, I suppose, for some stamp, some identifying characteristic.

Haven’t found it. No stamp, no explanation.

Heck, even Melania Trump, not-so-proud owner of one of the world’s nastiest spouses, has it taped: she just lives far away from her other half. Very far away. And even she managed to pull together a birthday wish, even if it was vaguely ambiguous and not quite as accurate as Jimmy Kimmel’s.

Yet this mystery is not new; not to me or the world. I recall, when I was at school, poring over the biography of Lucrezia Borgia, which my mother had absent-mindedly left in the bathroom. While the rest of my class was absorbed in the Sweet Valley series, my eyeballs were popping at the adventures of Pope Alexander VI. I tell you, those men of the cloth got up to some things that really deserve an age restriction. But what bemused me the most was the number of times the pope had somebody’s spouse killed because the church wouldn’t approve of a divorce.

Fast-forward to this week, and I read about a chap who bit his wife after a venomous snake bit him, so that they could die together. (She survived.) Apparently he woke up in the night to find he’d been bitten in bed, so he woke her up, explained that he didn’t want to be alone in the afterlife, and promptly chomped her on the hand. Then there was a bizarre murder-suicide at the Adam and Eve Nudist Camp (don’t ask), the apparent result of a love triangle. Oh, and then there’s this little nugget that spousal murder is apparently dramatically on the rise among Zambian women, attributed by experts to a lack of understanding of gender-based violence and intimate partner violence (both perpetrated by men and women).

Where exactly does all this stem from? If it’s an impulsive crime, is it an uncontrolled tsunami of rage? Why is it uncontrolled? If it’s a premeditated crime, is it a fear of disapproval, or is it greed, plain and simple? Do these strange fish just have no conscience and the desire to inherit money rather than split it?

What delusion is sitting there in their brain that tells them that’s the best idea? What profound sense of entitlement?

Friends, I accept defeat. I no more understand all of this than I understand the purpose of eggnog. But as the adage goes, if you love someone, set them free. If you hate someone, set them free. Basically, set everyone free, and get a dog. Because people make absolutely zero sense. DM


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