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We must emancipate ourselves from the mental slavery of...

Defend Truth


We must emancipate ourselves from the mental slavery of violence and criminality


Desmond Lesejane is a regional manager at the Programme to Improve Learning Outcomes (PILO) in KwaZulu-Natal and an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (ELCSA). This article is written in his personal capacity.

Could it be that crime levels continue at these unabated high levels in South Africa because we have accepted them as a norm and actually think some criminal activities aren’t as bad as others, in the same way that we accept sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) as a given? We have been desensitised.

I have been wondering about the normalisation of the abnormal and inhumane behaviours that befall us as part of our survival tactics.

Four weeks ago, I had a break-in at an apartment I am renting in the south of Durban. This is in an otherwise safe complex. Fewer than 10 units and only four occupied at the time. I did not hear a sound throughout that night — a midweek night — yet woke up to wide-open front doors and found the usual electronic gadgets missing from the apartment. I got scared when I could not find my cellphone, which is usually by my bedside. Then, I noticed the keys to the gate and my car were gone. After a while, I figured out how to jump on to the roof of the unit beneath mine and get to the car park. My worst nightmare had come true – my car was gone too.

I call myself a light sleeper. They say I am a calm person.

I became thankful that I was alive and that I was alone this time – unlike on another occasion in a different town and province when I was with my family and did wake up to find thieves eating in my dining room and trying on my clothes. That other night I instinctively pursued them with only a butcher knife I’d grabbed in the kitchen as I followed them. Only the cold breeze of dawn stopped me in my tracks then. This time, there were no encounters or attempted ones.

It felt like, and still feels like God protected me from what could have been a more dangerous encounter, had I woken up. Everybody who heard my account reinforced the same message. Material possessions can always be recouped, the financial losses notwithstanding. Another message is that I am not the only victim, nor am I the worst. Imagine the many who are killed or maimed in the process of similar criminal endeavours. Yes, I am more fortunate than them. I’m still standing and walking. 

The stressful moments came when I had to confront the bureaucracy of getting replacement documents, namely my ID and driver’s licence. Sheer torture. To add insult to injury, some bank and cellphone providers refused to accept my temporary ID as legitimate and give me new cards.

Even then, I tried with many cheerleaders to be thankful for life. Believe me, I am. 

I am wondering just how thankful I am, for in the process I have also learnt to live in fear, often waking up in the middle of the night to check if everything is safe and secure.

My years of work in the gender justice space refuse to let me normalise this reality. Often the question has been asked about why we are not getting angry enough at the high levels of violence against women and children in this country. Many have become indifferent to such violence. We become thankful when a woman has been raped, but not killed. Some breathe a sigh of relief when the rape happened in the context of an intimate partner relationship rather than a serial rapist prowling the streets. We urge the survivor to be thankful for life, to get over it, to move on.

Could it be that crime levels continue at these unabated high levels in this country because we have accepted them as the norm and actually think that some criminal activities are more acceptable than others, in the same way we accept SGBV as a given? That we will mourn and express outrage about instances that hit the media headlines and quietly and passively go on with our lives when what we consider to be lesser incidents continue? We have been desensitised.

I do not know which one feeds off the other. All of this seems to be interconnected but it is just not life.

At what point will we get gatvol about crime as a society and do all we can to stop it? The same goes for SGBV, without making it the survivors’ and activists’ issue, for it is a societal problem. We know we need to have our criminal justice system jacked up. We also know that we need to change attitudes and behaviours of men, who are not only the main perpetrators of violence against women and children, but also perpetrators of many other criminal activities we are privy to. 

A change in behaviour requires a mindset change. A liberation of the mind from the mental slavery of violence and criminality we have succumbed to, as Steve Biko observed. For perpetrators, it is a mindset emancipation that will make them more humane. And for the general society, it is a mindset liberation that will make us say, “no” to violent and criminal behaviour and inspire us to reclaim our streets and homes as safe spaces for all, so that we may live and sleep peacefully.

Such a reclaiming of our collective being will not numb us into accepting as normal that which is not normal. We will be ever-ready to see and act against such behaviours and hold those whom we have entrusted with the responsibility to protect us accountable. DM


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