Fear and shooting, a South African nightmare
A 26-year-old man killed nine and wounded nine more. My mother called me that night, sounding sad. We talked about how awful it was, how it made no sense and how it seemed as if nothing had been learnt from all those other tragic deaths – a conversation that was no doubt endlessly echoed by other families.
In that unyielding construct of threat and danger, of your death or mine, there is no middle ground, no compromise and no space for thought or language
According to Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, there have been 1,000 mass shootings in the US since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012. Where I live, too, in South Africa, the number of violent deaths is startling: according to the non-governmental organisation Africa Check, every day 49 people are killed and 48 people are victims of attempted murder.
It strikes me that the reason neither country is able to control gun violence effectively is fear. Could fear be the reason that anyone still defends the US constitution’s second amendment and the right to bear arms as part of a well-organised militia? Self-defence seems to be the stock response, but do they really need semi-automatic weapons to keep themselves safe? And my biggest question is: are they really that unsafe?
When I first moved to Johannesburg, I refused to drive long distances at night because of all the horror hijacking stories. I’ve learnt to adapt and have changed my tactics.
I love living in ‘Jozi‘ and enjoy its vibrant nightlife, but I always lock my doors, I never lower the window and I plan my routes to avoid hijacking ‘hotspots.’ It may not all be necessary, but it’s a habit I haven’t broken yet.
My job at the Wits Justice Project gives me a certain insight into the inner workings of the beleaguered criminal justice system and the country’s flaw of violence. It has also taught me that the reasons someone commits a crime are complex, and that rule of law is most successfully upheld in countries where the criminal justice system is predictable.
South Africa enacted stricter gun controls in 2004, and they seem to have had some effect, initially reducing gun crime by more than 21%. But illegal firearms and non-gun murders and attacks still account for too many deaths.
In what is perhaps the most well-publicised incident of gun violence in South Africa, former Olympian Oscar Pistorius cited fear as the excuse for shooting his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp through the bathroom door.
In her analysis of the crime, best-selling author Margie Orford explained it best, reminding us that the violent histories of both countries continue to shape their tragedies today: “In the pernicious narrative of ‘us’ against ‘them,’ these dangerous strangers, these ‘intruders’ in the land of their own birth, had to be obliterated. In that unyielding construct of threat and danger, of your death or mine, there is no middle ground, no compromise and no space for thought or language.”