The murder of Simon Milliken

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on a killing that encapsulates SA's decay


A murder that encapsulates SA's decay

Sometimes a vignette reveals more than an intricately detailed canvas. And a single murder may spotlight more surely the rot hollowing out our society than all the wisdom of opining experts.

A week ago the police released South Africa's crime figures. It’s one of those statistical bonanzas that provides a grisly annual feast to the commentariat. 

The bottom line figure is that ore than 20,000 people murdered every year. That makes us one of the most violent societies on earth and the situation is steadily getting worse.

Predictably, the media coverage was filled with political platitudes from the politicians and SA Police Service top echelon, and much abstruse theorising by academics on what could and should be done. As usual, the human story gets lost in the welter of numbers and the sludge of verbiage.

Last Saturday’s murder of Simon Milliken, the principal double bassist of the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic and by all accounts a gentle man, is more than simply just another digit on the tally sheet of the 57 people who are homicide victims on any average day. Milliken was killed in a robbery in Durban’s Burman Bush, a small, urban nature reserve that is just a three-minute stroll from the president’s official residence in KZN.

Milliken was on one of the 50 hectare reserve's three trails — the longest is a mere three kilometres and the shortest only 500 metres — with overseas visiting conductor Perry So. The two shared a passion for birdwatching. 

They were circling a tree, trying to spot the fledglings in a sparrowhawk’s nest, when they were confronted by a robber armed with a gun and a knife. It was one of those fumbling, bumbling encounters when naive middle-class outrage at being targeted by a criminal goes head to head with an angry young man who has few scruples and even less self-control. 

The upshot was that Milliken was killed, while So made his escape. The murderer’s actions are reprehensible but not entirely irrational. 

On the upside for the killer, dead men can’t be witnesses and on the downside, while the sentence for murder is harsher than that for robbery, the likelihood of being arrested for a stranger-on-stranger crime like this one, is infinitesimally low. Similarly, if by some cosmic aberration there is an arrest, the chances of a successful prosecution are also abysmal, because of poor evidence collection and forensic failures.

The problem is not, as the police chiefs often claim, a shortage of officers. It is, rather, the prevalence of incompetent ones. The SA Police Service has shot itself in the foot by expanding rapidly, enlisting large numbers of poorly schooled people, lacking the basic skills and character necessary to become efficient, disciplined law enforcers.

In Milliken’s case, the police took an hour to arrive on the scene, by which time it was dark. They did not have powerful torches and, presumably because of this, failed to venture along the trail. 

If they had, they would have found Milliken lying on the path, a 10-minute walk from the main gate. He bled out from his stab wounds but at this stage was likely still alive, according to media reports. 

The following day, the police were again late to start searching, well past daybreak. Milliken’s body was found not by the risibly named Search and Rescue unit of SAPS, but by two early morning walkers.

The lead cop had neither notebook nor pencil. He recorded his no doubt acute sleuthing observations on a page torn from Milliken’s own notebook, using Milliken’s own pencil, both obtained by rummaging through the dead man’s belongings. No forensic problems here.

Police incompetence might have been the coup de grace, but it was the Durban metro that set the stage for Milliken's death. Like so many local authorities, Ethekwini is riddled with indolence, incompetence and indifference.

The reserve, a jewel of coastal forest in the heart of the city, has been in decay for many years. Large sections of security fencing have been missing for at least a decade. Vagrants and illegal immigrants live semi-permanently in the bushes, despite complaints from the suburb’s residents. There have been scores of muggings at gunpoint and this is the third murder in four years.

But the residents, too, had an inadvertent role in Milliken’s demise. Having burst free from the killer, So ran from walled property to walled property, ringing bells to no avail. 

What happens locally can taint us globally. Upon a time, international travel websites waxed lyrical about Burman Bush’s natural beauty, its prolific birdlife, and its rare blue duiker. In recent years this has switched to stern warnings to stay away because of violent crime. 

That shift in international sentiment towards what was a small bit of Paradise, is emblematic of what is happening, or in danger of happening, to SA across the board. Milliken’s death pulls together in a single event many of the strands of neglect, paralysis, and decay that are eating the heart out an entire country.

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