First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
I keep having a recurring memory of the first time I felt terror. We were living in Diepkloof, Soweto. Just me, my parents and Dube, my beloved St Bernard. ‘My Kombi’, our lift club, picked me up to take me to school and my parents would drive to work together. On this one particular morning – I think I was nine years old – my parents left the house before me because My Kombi was running late and Sisi, the woman who capably took care of our home and of me, was on her way but had not arrived yet.
I was alone waiting outside the house with a backpack half my size, a crisp uniform and a highly Vaselined innocent face. It was eerily quiet, which was abnormal, because at my usual pickup time there were other children standing by their gates like me, waiting for their transport.
Although I was only nine, I knew the turmoil SA was in. These were the early 1990s and every other day schooling would be disrupted by stayaways, meaning no one reported to work or to school, and if you did not abide there would be consequences. There was also the prevalent violence. Being alone that morning, having seen a glimpse of the news the night before, was discomforting.
The stillness of the morning was shattered by the sounds of multiple gunshots. Two men were firing their handguns right in front of me, while running from another man chasing them. Have you ever experienced a gunfight at such close range you were convinced that a bullet must have hit you? A minor miscalculation by either of the gunmen and I would have been struck.
No one else witnessed this movie except for me – not even a stray dog. And as quickly as the gunmen had appeared, they disappeared. And as quickly as they disappeared my neighbours rushed out, startled by the noise. I, as the only witness, was surrounded by people who wanted to know who and what and why. For the first time in my life I felt the paralysis of terror. I could not speak or cry. I was in unmovable fear.
As if to rescue me from neighbours smothering me, My Kombi arrived. I do not know how I made it inside. The other kids in the Kombi saw all the neighbourly commotion and they too wanted to know what happened. Still I could not speak. I did not speak at school either. I was afraid. I think I managed to speak when I saw my parents again that evening. They had been told by the neighbours that I had seen something and they wanted to know too.
My body’s intelligent reaction to the terror of that morning was to obscure my memory. I could barely recall the details of what happened. And what I could recall, I had started doubting the veracity of. Were there three men? Were there multiple shots? If it was not for the neighbours corroborating the sound of the gunshots, I would have convinced myself that I made the whole thing up.
This was one of the earliest instances of terror in my life. I am grateful that guns and shoot-outs have not been a part of my life. But I do live with the terror of things that haven’t happened yet – the terror that our violent country will finally claim me or someone I love. This sense of terror has been heightened by the hyperactive WhatsApp groups that warn of every neighbourhood crime and every Covid-19 mutation. I am afraid.
How do I ensure that fear doesn’t paralyse me? Writer Arthur C Brooks observes that the real issue is that we have too little love in our lives to protect us against our fears. The only antidote to terror is love. St John the Apostle said: “There is no fear in love.” When we feel overwhelmed by the daily reported South African terrors, make sure you are not the reason someone is afraid. Make sure you are the reason someone knows love. DM168
Lwando Xaso is an attorney and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @Including_Inc
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.