THE BIG READ: A history of violence
If effective intervention strategies are to be developed. it is important to recognise systemic nature of violence in South Africa, says Jane Duncan
It was June 16 1992. We had been handing out pamphlets at a rally to commemorate the events of the day in 1976.
I returned home and called my mother. I phoned at 3.30pm, when I knew she would be home. She did not answer. I tried several times, but she didn't answer.
I phoned again at 6.30pm, and my father answered.
"Can I speak to my mother?"
In the voice of a stranger, he said: "Your mother has been murdered."
I remember going into shock.
I was with my partner at the time, Dennis, and he offered to drive me to the family home in Boksburg.
Police cars were parked outside.
Dennis and I went into the lounge and sat. Police were milling around.
My father told me that, as he let himself into the back yard, he knew something was wrong as my mother's two dogs were outside. They were never outside at that time of the day.
As he entered the house, he saw a pool of blood and he knew what had happened. Not knowing if the murderers were still in the house, he went in and called the police.
The voice in my head told me I would not come to terms with what had happened until I saw my mother's body. I had to say goodbye. My brother walked me to the kitchen, where her body had been found. She was lying face down on the floor in a pool of blood, one arm under her head. She was semi-naked.
Later that night I had to use the toilet, which meant walking past the kitchen again. The mortician had arrived and had turned my mother's body over to prepare her to be placed in a body bag.
I looked at her again. This time I saw her face. Rictus had set in. Her eyes were open and had turned light blue. Her mouth was frozen open. When I looked into her eyes, there was nothing. I had become used to seeing the complex range of emotions mothers feel for their daughters: love, happiness, pride, anger, sadness. This time, nothing.
Dennis took me home, and the events sunk in. I screamed long into the night. The worst part was to find the strength to get up and function the next morning.
The motive for the attack remains unclear and the murder unsolved.
The attack was ferocious. According to the autopsy report, my mother was stabbed more than 30 times and bled to death.
The air in Boksburg, white middle-class suburbia at the time, was thick with racial invective after the murder.
The next day, June 17 1992, the Boipatong massacre happened. What become known as "the violence" was threatening to drag the country into civil war.
I remember feeling it was self-indulgent to wallow in my grief when so many people were dying.
In time, evidence emerged that the violence of the early 1990s was an apartheid state-sponsored project to prevent South Africa emerging as a united nation.
If revolutionary mass organisations were destabilised, the more reformist elements of the liberation movement would continue multiparty 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 ANC, did lose touch with its mass base at critical moments and it did make concessions that constrained the transformative potential of the transition. While I do not think my mother's murder was directly linked to "the violence", the political context had begun to normalise violence in many human interactions, including criminal ones. I stayed with my father after my mother's death. For at least a year after her murder, I could not be alone.
There are only two possible ways out of such an experience: down or up. At age 27, going down was not an option. Emigrating was not an option either as I would never be able to make sense of my mother's death in a foreign land.
To go up, I needed to invest my mother's death with meaning. I felt the best way to honour her memory was to work towards a society where no one would have to go through what I went through.
I've been damaged by this experience, but it also made me stronger. Stressful situations are easier to handle because most pale into insignificance compared to the murder of my mother, and I survived that.
Many have praised the South African transition for being mostly peaceful. This praise is largely deserved because the violence did abate. But the legacy of psychological damage is still felt in the gratuitous violence in many crimes, racist attacks, high levels of sexual violence and growing political violence in parts of the country.
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 have no desire to see my mother's murderers sentenced to death. Destroying another life is not the answer.
If effective intervention strategies are to be developed, it is important to recognise the systemic nature of violence in South Africa. Cycles of violence continue because of how society is organised. 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, our fragile national unity could fracture and the country could be turned upside-down again. If this happens, the apartheid system, in its defeat, will have won.
But such reversals are not inevitable, nor likely. Too many people are committed to the struggle to become human for that to happen easily.
Duncan is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society, School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. This is an edited version of the article which appeared on http://sacsis.org.za