The Wages of Violence

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It was June 16, 1992. A number of us had been to hand out pamphlets at a rally to commemorate the events of the day in 1976, as we generally did on that day. I returned home in the afternoon, and decided to phone my mother to discuss a favour I needed to ask of her. I phoned her at 3.30pm, when I knew she would be home.

She did not answer the phone. I tried several times after that, and still she didn’t answer. A small voice in my head told me that something was wrong, as her daily routine was predictable. So, I decided to phone after 6pm, when I knew my father would be home from work.

I phoned at 6.30pm and my father answered. He sounded strange. Instinctively I reacted to the strangeness by becoming extremely formal and asked, “Is this Craig?” (my father’s first name). I usually called him dad. He responded in an equally stiff manner by saying, “This is he.” For some inexplicable reason, I persisted with this formality and asked, “Can I speak to my mother?”

He said in a distant voice, not of my father but of a stranger, “Your mother has been murdered.” He told me that he had phoned my brother to tell him, but that he did not have the courage to phone me.

I can’t remember what I said, but I remember going into shock. I was with my partner, Dennis, at the time, who offered to drive me to the family home in Boksburg, as I was not capable of driving. I was greeted by an unreal scene at the house. Scores of police cars were parked outside.

Dennis and I went into the lounge and sat down. Police were milling around. My father told me that as he let himself into the backyard after having come home from work, he instinctively knew something was wrong as my mother’s two dogs were outside, pining. They were never outside at that time of the day. As he entered the back door of the house, he saw a large pool of blood seeping out and he automatically knew what had happened. Not knowing if the murderers were still in the house, he went to the phone and phoned the police.

A voice in my head told me that I would not be able to come to terms what had happened until I saw my mother’s body. I needed to say goodbye to her. So I asked to see her.

My brother walked me towards the kitchen where her body had been found. Bloodstains were all over the walls and the floor. She was lying face down on the kitchen floor in a large pool of blood with one arm under her head. She was semi-naked. As though I was attempting to comfort myself, I remember remarking to my brother that she looked peaceful, like she had fallen asleep.

Later on that night, I asked to go to the toilet, which meant walking past the kitchen entrance again. By that stage the mortician had arrived and had turned my mother’s body over to prepare her to be placed in the body bag.

I looked inside and saw her again. This time I saw her face. Rictus had set in. Her eyes were open. They had turned light blue. Her mouth was frozen open. When I looked into my mother’s eyes, I had become used to seeing the complex range of emotions that mothers feel towards their daughters: love, happiness, pride, anger, sadness. This time I looked and saw absolutely nothing. There are no words to describe what that feels like.

Dennis took me home, and the events sunk in then. I remember screaming long into the night. But the worst part of the whole experience was to find the strength to get up and function the next morning, followed by the morning after that. I dreaded having to make this incident part of my life.

The motive for the attack remains unclear and the murder unsolved. She was stabbed to death. The attack was ferocious, suggesting that it was driven by something other than a need to subdue her during a robbery. According to the autopsy report, she was stabbed over 30 times and bled to death. It seemed so senseless, so meaningless. Boksburg being what it was at the time, after the murder the air in white middle class suburbia was thick with racial invective.

The next day, the Boipatong massacre happened. It felt like the world had ended. Blood was everywhere. What become known as ‘the violence’ was threatening to drag the country down into civil war.

At the time I worked at the Afrika Cultural Centre in Fordsburg, run by Benjy Francis. The Centre ran a theatre for development project, which was the only project of its kind that could continue operating in Kathorus on the East Rand at the height of the violence. This was because it commanded enough respect to work with both residents and hostel-dwellers while not being seen as being aligned to either.

The Centre continued this work throughout the violence. They feared that unless interventions were made to encourage people to express their experiences, then many would suffer irreversible psychological damage, which could make the cycle of violence impossible to break in future.

Many of the centre’s members lost friends and family. Every day I would go to work and someone else was missing. All one would need to ask is, “Is it the violence?” “Yes it’s the violence,” would be the inevitable response.

A friend of mine who was a doctor at Baragwanath hospital, which was overflowing with victims of the violence, told me that the violence was so relentless that many victims did not have the luxury of suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, as there was never any ‘post’ to their stress. Many families were lucky to lose only one family member.

I remember saying to Benjy that it felt self-indulgent to wallow in my own grief when so many people were dying.

“Each loss is a mountain to the person who experiences it,” he responded.

Saths Cooper whose office was based at the centre also counselled me briefly. He helped me understand the violence politically, as a by-product of a violent political system, which helped me make sense of it and feel less helpless.

In time, evidence emerged that the violence of the early 1990’s was an apartheid state-sponsored project to prevent South Africa from emerging as a united nation. If revolutionary mass organisations were destabilised, then the more reformist elements of the liberation movement would continue multi-party negotiations with the movement’s mass base in disarray. This would have weakened the movement’s negotiating position, making it more susceptible to concessions.

As things turned out, the movement’s main negotiator, the African National Congress, did lose touch with its mass base at critical moments and it did make concessions that significantly constrained the transformative potential of the transition.

While I do not think that my mother’s murder was directly linked in any way to “the violence”, the political context had begun to normalise violence in so many human interactions, including criminal ones. It was a period in South African history where people were turning up dead all over the place.

Working in the context that I did helped me to come to terms with what happened, as I was surrounded by people who were in a collective daily struggle to remain human, in defiance of the brutalising political context. Being politically active also helped.

I stayed with my father after my mother’s death. It was extremely difficult. For at least a year after her murder, I could not bear to be alone. I raged at television drama programmes that depicted victims of violence. I raged because they died so peacefully in the movies: they simply closed their eyes and died. I now knew that when people are attacked, they look at their murderers full on and they die with their eyes wide open.

Sometimes I would see my mother walking towards me in the street. She came to me often in my dreams. One time she appeared at the end of my corridor and beckoned me into my bathroom. When I entered, it was covered in blood.

She still comes to me in my dreams, but now she is much more peaceful, encouraging me to move on with my life.

Sometimes I would hear sounds in the middle of the night and freeze with fear. It is important to develop coping skills, which build mental strength in such situations. One of mine was reciting a poem from the novel Dune titled, Litany Against Fear. Such litanies have been used in many contexts to focus the mind in times of peril. The litany reads:

I must not fear
Fear is the mind killer
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration
I will face my fear
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

There are only two possible ways out of such an experience: down or up. At 27 years of age, going down was not an option for me. Emigrating was not an option either, as I would never be able to make sense of my mother’s death in a foreign land.

But in order to go up, I needed to invest my mother’s death with meaning. Even victims have agency. I felt that the best way to honour her memory was to commit myself to working towards a society where no one would have to go through what I went through. No daughter should have to look into her mother’ eyes and see what I saw.

I know that I have been damaged by this experience. But it has also made me mentally stronger. Stressful situations in my life have become easier to handle, because most of them pale into insignificance compared to the murder of my mother and, after all, I survived that.

Many have praised the South African transition to democracy for being largely peaceful. This praise is largely deserved, because the violence did abate. But elements of it have also returned. The legacy of psychological damage is still being felt in the gratuitous violence used in many crimes, racist attacks, high levels of sexual violence, growing political violence in some parts of the country, and the overall cheapness of human life.

It is tempting to respond to this cycle by seeking retribution through measures like the reinstatement of the death penalty. But this is a false solution. I for one have no desire to see my mother’s murderers sentenced to death if they are caught. Destroying another life, however wretched, is not the answer.

If effective intervention strategies are to be developed, then it is important to recognise the systemic nature of violence in South Africa. In other words, cycles of violence continue because of how society is organised, rather than as a result of individual factors alone.

Unless economic inequality and social marginalisation are addressed decisively, the patterns of violence are likely to continue. Social divisions that bubble under the surface could be politicised, South Africa’s fragile national unity could fracture and the country could be turned upside down once again. If this happens, then the apartheid system, in its defeat, will have won.

But such reversals are not inevitable. In fact, they are not even likely. Too many people are committed to the struggle to become human for that to happen easily. South Africa is made of sterner stuff, which is why our country’s future is, on balance, a hopeful one.

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Professor Duncan is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society, School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University.

  • This article appeared on the South African Civil Society Information Service website.