A bottle of petrol and the death of hope
How the economic crunch tipped one desperate South African towards a horrific decision
Hours after yet another desperate and fruitless job search, 53-year-old Susan van Rooyen stood on the pavement on Union Road, Randgate, poured petrol over her head, rubbed it into her skin and set herself alight.
But while the horror of Van Rooyen’s attempted suicide shocked those who witnessed it in this town west of Johannesburg, the desperation that lay behind it came as no surprise. Here, South Africa’s economic crunch is as real as the air people breathe.
On Thursday – as Van Rooyen fought for her life at the state-run Leratong Hospital - an elderly woman and her granddaughter sat on the side of the road, selling old clothes they had strewn across the grass. They hugged each other in excitement when they sold a jersey for R20.
“There are hard times here and there is no help whatsoever,” said Danny Hallet, a plant pathologist-turned-car guard who regularly saw Van Rooyen in the neighbourhood.
“The economy has gone haywire, especially in the last two years. [Susan] used to come to me and borrow R2 or R3 so she could buy bread,” said Hallet.
We tried to tell her that she wasn’t a burden. She didn’t believe it.Susan Cloete, daughter
“But she always brought it back,” he added. This week an economic survey said consumer confidence had experienced a three-year stretch of pessimism, the longest period of gloom since the research started in 1982 at the height of apartheid.
With his clothes hanging off his frame and sporting a black eye, Hallet has battled drug addiction – a result, he says, of the pain of trying to survive.
“I can’t get a job. I get told I am overqualified, white or too old,” he said.
Van Rooyen struggled too. Despite having numerous security qualifications, she couldn’t get a job.
Hallet believes he knows why she reached her tipping point on Monday.
“She had problems with her boyfriend. He was threatening to leave her and she got desperate. Her only source of income was disappearing,” Hallet said.
Metres away from his car-guard spot is a home industry shop, where Van Rooyen often came to ask for odd jobs.
“She was down and out like a lot of people here,” said Helen Smit, a cashier.
“She never begged for anything but she was willing to do anything. She even offered to scrub the floors,” said Smit.
In recent months, Van Rooyen had come to the shop and left behind a few of her hand-crocheted teapot cozies, hoping to sell them. A few weeks later she returned. Not even one had sold.
“It broke our hearts to see her walk out each time but unfortunately, there was nothing we could offer her,” said Smit.
Van Rooyen was one of at least 10 people a week who came to the shop looking for work.
“Before I worked here I didn’t know how desperate people were,” said Smit.
Only a week earlier, an old homeless man who was known in the neighbourhood was found dead metres away from where Van Rooyen had tried to take her life.
While some believed he had died from a heart attack, others said he could have died of hunger.
Monday’s horror was captured by CCTV cameras. The footage shows Van Rooyen walking with purpose outside the Spar Tops where she had earlier come with a folder of her qualifications, seeking a job.
She stopped at the street corner, looked both ways and unscrewed the cap of the two-litre bottle she had filled with petrol minutes before.
She poured its contents over her head and briefly smeared the petrol onto her face before reaching for a lighter in her pocket. Within a split second, she was engulfed in flames.
Van Rooyen tried to frantically fan herself before throwing her body in a pothole filled with water.
A taxi driver armed with a fire extinguisher was one of the many people who came to her rescue.
Within forty seconds, the fire was out. Minutes later, she was taken to hospital.
“She didn’t say much to me. She just asked for petrol worth R10 and then this happened,” said the petrol attendant who only gave his name as Manuel.
Thabo Freddie, a car guard who also helps people hail taxis outside the local Spar, was standing nearby when Van Rooyen set herself alight.
“People thought it was a car burning. It was the first time I saw something like that,” said Freddie.
“She was not screaming or crying,” said John Mthimkulu, who worked at a gambling shop across the road.
“There are a lot of impoverished people here and maybe something had upset her on that day,” he said.
Van Rooyen’s daughter, Susan Cloete, is trying to understand her mother’s act.
“Why would she want to burn herself?” Cloete sobbed.
“Why would she want to end her life in such a gruesome way? How much guts does one need to have to do this?” she asked.
Cloete had seen her mother about an hour earlier.
“She said she was tired and that she wouldn’t see me the next day. She said she wanted to rest,” Cloete said.
She could tell her mother had been crying earlier as her eyes were red and puffy. Her mother, who has not had formal employment for over 20 years and who has battled with bipolar disorder, complained that she felt she was a burden to the family.
She has received a R1,600 monthly social grant for more than a decade after her doctor declared her unfit to work due to her anxiety.
“She loved her space and independence and although we tried to tell her that she wasn’t a burden, she didn’t believe it,” said Cloete, a mother of three.
Her mother had lived with them for a few months in their two-bedroom house on a plot a 30-minute walk from Union Road where Van Rooyen tried to kill herself.
She had been sleeping on a sleeper couch that was covered in a sheet in the corner of the lounge.
Her mother had left a few weeks ago and moved in with a man believed to be her boyfriend.
Days earlier Cloete had posted a message on a Facebook community group, asking for anyone who had a spare room to lodge her mother as they did not have space in their home.
Cloete said her mother had tried to take her life before.
On discharge from hospital, her mother will need constant supervision.
“She needs a place where she can be monitored 24 hours a day. I am not taking any more chances,” said Cloete.
The SA Depression and Anxiety Group said Van Rooyen’s story was, sadly, not unique.
“Financial stress contributes significantly to overall stress,” said Cassey Chambers, operations director at SADAG.
“It can affect your work, relationship, family – it can affect your overall wellbeing,” Chambers said.
For those who already have a mental illness, like Van Rooyen, the financial stress could make the illness worse.
“For those who don’t have a mental illness, the extreme amount of stress can trigger something. If this stress or depression is left untreated, it can lead to suicide,” Chambers said.
“The amount of these cases is underestimated.”