That long, black cloud coming down

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the horrific and worsening violence that plagues SA


I knew the late Jeremy Gordin only tangentially.

Despite our coinciding lifetimes in journalism and, for the past few years, both being columnists at Politicsweb, we had never met or, indeed, spoken. Nevertheless, for the past week, his death has been churning constantly in my thoughts.

This stems partly from the power of words. Gordin was an older white man who revelled in the rich complexities of Jewish culture and language — his final column was a typically rambling but still erudite and witty excoriation of Benjamin Netanyahu — yet his love and concern for our ailing country could resonate with any South African, irrespective of race, creed or age.  

Another part of my feeling so disturbed is the emblematic nature of his passing: violently murdered in his home for a television set and a motor car. Yet another son, husband, father, and friend uncaringly and needlessly snuffed out by the feral predators who now roam virtually unchecked.

For context, right now I happen to be in Portugal, which is statistically positioned somewhere in the middle of the European crime scale. Fewer people are murdered in Portugal in a year — 76, on average, over the past half dozen years — than the 82 that are slain every day in South Africa. 

Even pro-rata — our population being six times that of Portugal — the violence in South Africa relative to that of any European Union nation is of a magnitude that is incomprehensible to the locals here. 

Even on a continent as violent as Africa, we are outliers in homicidal savagery. Our vastly poorer and more precariously poised neighbour, Zimbabwe, had 556 murders in all of 2020. In the last quarter of 2022, South Africa had 7,555.

Over the past dozen years, except for a pandemic-induced dip in 2020, our violent crime rates, including rape and assault, have risen sharply. South Africa is now the 6th most dangerous country in the world, with a murder rate of 34.4 per 100,000 people. 

That’s worse than deadly shitholes like the Central Africa Republic, Iraq, Somalia and Haiti and only marginally better than Guatemala (35.4), Colombia (35.7), Lesotho (36) and Venezuela (39). Only El Salvador, like ourselves teetering on the “failed state” brink, is markedly worse, at 48.7.

This is not homicide as most of the world experiences it. This is a war and we are losing it.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, following the Russian invasion 8,401 Ukrainian civilians died in the year to March 26. More than three times as many — 27,066 people — were murdered in South Africa over that same period

In two decades of the Afghanistan war, there were around 46,000 civilian deaths. In a decade of the Syrian conflict, 306,000 civilians died. Since 1994 in South Africa, 597,999 people have been murdered.

Such astronomical figures are, on their own, too remote from our daily lives to be meaningful, except as an intellectual abstraction. We are the victims of  emotional battery, now moved only by the numbers that impinge on us or our immediate circle — the killing of people that we know personally or else know of. 

Our mainstream newspapers have reached the stage of reporting only on the murder of celebrities and the most gruesome murders of “ordinary” people. But the scale of the South African slaughter means that virtually every one of us has a family member or friend who has been murdered. 

Every one of us knows a Jeremy Gordin — a once vibrant, humane, flawed fellow citizen whose life has been cut short, distressingly often only after horrific tortures have been inflicted. Is it any surprise, then, that we are such a traumatised, dysfunctional and flailing society?   

Yet whatever our night time fears, we tend to think that we, personally, will come through unscathed. A column that Gordin wrote late last year touches on the kind of minor crime that almost all of us have experienced. He relates, with characteristic self-deprecation, a burglary at the Parkview home where he would be murdered just a few months later. 

“`All things considered,” he writes, “it ended pretty well ... Oh, we always say, at least no one was hurt.” He then cuts to the nub of how our lives are hostages to economic and governmental decay:

“Does one have to live like this? Why can’t a 70-year-codger forget about locking his door without having his property invaded?

“What about the police … what’s happened to them? Their demise and uselessness are now regarded as so normal as not to need comment. But I’d say the collapse of policing has been even more complete than the collapse of Eskom, about which we talk all the time.”

This week, as if to underscore Gordin’s remark, our clueless Police Minister Bheki Cele told Parliament that over the nine months from April to December 2022, 1,644 people were murdered in 701 separate “mass attacks” (an attack in which more than one person is killed). Police efforts yielded a meagre 388 arrests, out of which they managed to secure a pitiful three convictions. 

But, no doubt, Gordin’s family will find much-needed consolation in the reassurances of the SA Government Communication and Information System’s acting Director-General, Michael Currin: “The government is confident law enforcement authorities will expedite the investigation to ensure that the perpetrators responsible for the death of our late, esteemed journalist face the full might of the law.” 

The “might of the law”? The killers will be quaking in their boots.

There’s another Politicsweb column, also from late last year, in which Gordin addresses the most critical and difficult question facing the middle-class, irrespective of race. Is South Africa still salvageable?

In this open letter to his children, Gordin writes that “at the risk of being theatrical”, lines from Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door — “It’s gettin’ dark, too dark for me to see” —  had been preying on his mind. This had been sparked by the disastrous state of the country, “not because, like the guy in the song, I’m preparing to die in a few minutes' time”. 

He counsels them to leave “the beloved, wonderful country”. Not because they’re likely to find themselves “in desperate flight across your own border” but because “things are clearly falling apart”. 

“You, who have your whole lives before you (as they say), need to consider seriously going to live elsewhere.” Then, referencing the long, long history of a Jewish diaspora, he concludes, “We’ve been doing it for centuries, after all.” 

On the same day that Jeremy Gordin was murdered, News24 published a lengthy exhortation to optimism in South Africa’s future, written by Adrian Gore, the CEO of the Discovery Group. Gore argues that the mobilisation of the business sector and shedding the prevailing but unfounded “deep sense of futility” will save this country and ourselves. 

Not once in 1,400 words does he mention the violence that has hollowed out South Africa’s collective soul. 

Optimism is a fine and necessary thing. But it’s worse than worthless if it ignores, in Dylan’s words, “that long black cloud comin’ down”. 

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye