Opinionista Joanne Hichens 4 April 2018

The response to ‘fright’ – flight or fight

Let’s go back a bit, to South Africa given a second chance, the country on the cusp of achieving great things. But then along came recidivism. A fragile hope of change was replaced with cynicism, a precious and tender harmony gave way to tension.

Over the years, since 1994, “groups” were once more pitted against each other as we were in the past, this time as a distraction from the ‘new’ truth — that the ANC government, led by Zuma and his lackeys, could not care less about society at large.

The ANC stole our money, moving it to private bank accounts and stashing it in plastic bags to be ferried in planes to Dubai. With the theft there went any ideals of rehab: the million houses would not be built, the schooling would not be paid for, the trauma of poverty could not be alleviated; jobs became, like hen’s teeth, even more scarce.

The losses to this country are incalculable in any true sense of accounting. We’ve lost more than money, in billions; certainly we lost financial stability as our prosperous economy leaked into the dirt, and international credibility as we flaunted every traditional convention of a democratic government.

The real tragedy, though, is that we, as civil society, lost sight of each other. With suspicion and resentment fostered, resulting in growing alienation from one another, we lost the sense of possibility, the attitude of “stepping up” to achieve anything we wanted to; we lost any sense of the already-frail security that might have been weaned; we lost the desire to embrace our fellow-man, and this brings me to talk more generally of the most urgent of all the problems to be addressed: crime.

David Cohen, in his book, People Who Have Stolen From Me, wrote, in 2004, that “although crime is the unavoidable legacy of apartheid, the country’s main fault line exists between the clean and the corrupt, the – to be blunt – honest man and the crook”. He wrote that crime “is potentially catastrophic”. Sadly, since that time, around 15 years ago, the very catastrophe he envisioned has played out in the most wilful, self-interested corruption of the highest order.

However, crime has not been restricted to rising in the top echelons. It seems logical to surmise that as things worsened in society – due to stagnation and decline, also due to rifts and divisions – what little opportunity there was dwindled further, and crime escalated in all sectors. Our psychic well-being has evaporated little by little, like the water from the Cape dams.

We suffer from a collective “stress” as none is spared from the scourge. Crime hurts, and the fear of crime erodes; fear to step on a train, to walk at night without constantly looking over shoulders; children can’t have the run of the neighbourhood in case of abduction or worse. The curtailing of such ordinary freedoms adds to an overall sense of vulnerability and helplessness.

In affluent suburbs guards walk the streets, booms keep out the “stranger”. A worker tells me he wants to go back to his home country as “it is difficult to work here without fear of retribution”. A photograph of 15-year-old Nosipho Nkosinkulu, missing from my suburb, is sent through to my crime-alert WhatsApp group. A visiting friend tells me that in her gang-infested area, “The gangsters have guns, the police have guns, anyone who has a gun is out there using their gun.”

In one week, in my street, two home invasions occur. I skrik wakker, on the second of these occasions, to gunfire, and in the dread of night the first thought that enters my head is “someone must be dead”. The next morning it’s thankfully confirmed that even though residents were tied up and robbed, “no one was hurt”; the pathetic credo that we live by.

“Where does this wreed come from?” says my friend, as we talk of a recent spate of murders, “that a man is so angry that he will stab you over and over again and then just take your shoes? Two, three in the morning, skelms do bad things, they roam the streets looking for trouble, they rape, they murder. And when they get caught, they come out of the justice system with clean hands.”

“Could it be,” wrote Jonny Steinbeck, also over a decade ago, as editor of Crime Wave by Anthony Altbeker, “that the rage (die wreed) so many expected (around the time of the 1994 elections) found expression after all, not in the formal arenas of politics, but in the underworld of crime?”

Organised crime, white-collar crime, gangsterism and random crime seem all to be on the up. Since the mid 1990s, and with ANC policies of open borders, drugs play a major role in causing crime. Once hooked that is.

Cape Town in particular, remaining a murder capital of the world, has a history of violence. Heather Lewis describes Cape Town, in her novel The Interloper, as “a city with a backdrop so breathtakingly beautiful that it is impossibly painful to conceive of the horror it has been witness to… All the ugliness that the human mind can invent”.

It continues to be marked by violence. Violence, it can be said, as a manifestation of utter disappointment and overwhelming anger: anger at the past, at slavery, at injustice, anger at poverty, at the eroded family unit, at a fatherless, leaderless society; anger at government inability to consider the welfare of all the people.

Too often the intimate, familial world is shattered. In a Daily Maverick article by Marianne Thamm, titled What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, Anna Cornelius, the mother of Stellenbosch student Hannah, brutally murdered last year, is quoted:

“There are so many dead, so many bereaved and broken parents and family members, that South Africans simply cannot keep track of the names of the slain, those plucked from life… Their names,” she says, “disappear in a sea of newsprint.”

Tragically, Anna Cornelius has since, allegedly, committed suicide. “With a death of a child, no matter what age,” writes Brenda Hillman in an essay titled, Cezanne’s Colours, “the specifically maternal happiness must be written off.”

One has only to trawl through the Pink Ladies Missing Persons website to get a sense of how often, too often, innocents are targeted. How cheap is life is; that not even children are spared.

My message to anyone who wants to leave South Africa might be “Don’t run”, but I can’t blame anyone for doing so. I might if I had an easy opportunity, if I was younger, if I had skills that could transfer.

We are dealing with our political past as we speak, every minute of every day, in ways we are aware of and ways that are subconscious, but the past includes our personal crises, our sorrows, our disappointments, grief, guilt. Our shame. Our Fear. And at some stage we have to face it all. We have to work with loss, to get through loss.

I choose to renew my personal commitment to the neighborhood in which I live, and to my loved ones who live with me, and to the people I care about who live and work in my orbit.

Perhaps I’m a Pollyanna, but I have to believe that we’re starting a new cycle, that hope exists to heal a nation’s psychic wounds. I have to look to myself to ensure that, in whatever capacity, I treat others fairly, justly, and with kindness, and that this will be paid forward.

The hope is that civil society will join forces in whatever ways we can to stop the rot, the crime, to move forward in a determined fashion to improve the lot of all. It is in our best interests, as a nation, to encourage sacrifice and sharing, to ensure a shape for the future in which citizens feel heard, and secure.

Some may say the “send me” story is cliché, but perhaps it’s time to truly take to heart – and keep replaying – those lyrics of Hugh Masakela’s Thuma Mina:

I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around?
When they triumph over poverty?
I wanna be there when the people win the battle against AIDS
I wanna be there for the alcoholic
I wanna be there for the drug addict?
I wanna be there for the victims of violence and abuse?…

Some might say I’m blinkered. Others may accuse that I’m privileged and have it easy. As one small drop of positive in an ocean of negative I may indeed be trying to convince myself that in some measure we can overcome the great deal of hate we’re conscious of every day – crime has no borders, crime is rife in every neighbourhood. Perhaps, on some level, I too want to take “flight”. Maybe. But for now, today, “I wanna be there”.

I want to be here.

I am here.

What now? DM

Joanne Hichens is the award-winning editor of a series of short-story anthologies funded by the National Arts Festival of South Africa. As author, her crime novels feature Rae Valentine, a one-legged ex-addict private eye who brings divine justice to Cape Town. She has also taught creative writing at UCT and Rhodes, producing some of the country’s most acclaimed fiction writers.

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