Only death deters
Had I been two shades lighter, I would have turned red with embarrassment when strangers inquired if I was “Ronnie Pillay’s daughter. You’re that reporter at the Natal Witness newspaper. How was your scholarship to America?” they asked.
It was the late 1990s and my father had been telling his friends about his eldest daughter’s exploits. He had managed to educate her despite earning a meagre salary from delivering newspapers to shops in the early hours of the morning. He had worked for the then Natal Witness, and later Independent Newspapers.
Ronnie Pillay had moved a notch up the social ladder from his father, Muthusamy, who rode a bicycle, delivering copies of the Natal Witness to Pietermaritzburg’s then white suburbs. Muthusamy died on the job, of a heart attack, in 1976.
After happily announcing to his friends and family that his prized daughter was moving to the Johannesburg-based Business Day newspaper, my father reminded me to “look after your job. Don’t disgrace the family name. Treat people the way you want to be treated.”
Six years later there were tears in my eyes when my husband David decided that I should be the driver of his newly acquired Peugeot convertible—he would drive the Toyota family car. Leaning against the car and looking up at the sky, I whispered: “Now you can tell your friends in heaven that your eldest daughter has a beautiful convertible. She is climbing up the social ladder. You probably have already told them that she lives in her dream home, which has five bedrooms.”
Two weeks ago, I sobbed as David drove the convertible off to a car dealership. We have replaced it with one of the cheapest foreign-made cars supposedly unattractive to hijackers and township chop shops. As a driver of a Chevrolet Spark, I have crashed down the social ladder.
Ten weeks ago, not only was my little car “raped” but so were our minds. The robbers had forced David into our house at gunpoint. They tied us up, and my terrified mother and three children sat on the bed faced with the prospect of being raped and murdered. These “men” participated in their own liberation struggle—freeing us of all our valuable, hard-earned possessions. They drove off in our cars, which they subsequently damaged, and dumped in Soweto and Pretoria.
They played the role of God that night—choosing not to rape and shoot us. These were gentle savages, who merely engaged in affirmative shopping.
As an occasional Hindu, I had not been religious. As we lay on the floor tied up, I prayed to my deceased father to help us. “Please dad, save us. I’m begging you. Help us,” I cried. The Hindu lamp (a small brass object which is lit daily and symbolises the presence of God in one’s house) that my mother had lit in the evening, burnt brightly throughout our ordeal.
Still shocked that we’re alive, I’ve started believing there is a God. But why did he save us and not musician Lucky Dube, who was gunned down by hijackers?
We live in fear and hardly sleep. What if another bunch of robbers attacks us? I drag my screaming children off the trampoline into the house in the afternoon. It is safer locked up indoors.
I fear that, at a house near my home, loiterers photographed passing residents with their cellphone cameras. The property, which has been vacant for a year, was used recently by robbers as a halfway house to hide their stolen goods in the ceiling. Residents are terrified. Thys Lourens of Integrated Property Services says the company has managed the house which has just been sold and guards have been employed. When asked about the safety risk the house had posed, Lourens said: “How can a police force that costs us R10-billion per annum not take care of crime?”
Meanwhile, I am haunted by visions of my five-year-old twin daughters being raped and lying dead with bullet wounds in their heads as I lie awake at night.
“Hello Mr Man. Are you the bad mans who took mum and dad’s cars?” they ask black men who walk past our house.
While I love my children more than life, I almost regret producing them. How can I promise them that the “bad mans with a gun” will not come back to hurt us? Nobody can provide us with that guarantee. I have failed as a mother to protect my children because the system has failed me.
We’ve contemplated fleeing the country. I cried at a New Zealand immigration seminar we attended with about 200 other broken-spirited people, who all seemed desperate to escape. This is the place of my birth. I worked hard for what I have. I don’t want to leave.
I have never felt so weak and disempowered. I’ve been raised to be feisty and to take no nonsense, a strong believer in the Nike slogan “Just do it”.
“Fight for what you want. Never give up and don’t behave like a victim,” I can hear my father saying.
But how do I fight a system where the president of this country does not care about people being raped and murdered? Do President Thabo Mbeki and his leadership flinch when they hear of a Wits professor and his family being terrorised by robbers, while his daughter was raped?
Surely Mbeki and his ANC leadership understand fear—they had to have experienced terror when they put their own lives at risk during the liberation struggle, fighting the apartheid government. Do they see themselves as the guardians of our population? Or are they so busy with their own power struggles that they do not care about the citizenry that voted them in?
How many more rapes and murders is it going to take for Mbeki to realise that no other intervention but the reintroduction of the death sentence for serious crimes will deter crime? Improved training of police is not going to prevent criminals from killing people. Life in South Africa is brutally violent and this phenomenon is so far gone that only the reintroduction of the death sentence will instil fear in would-be rapists and murders.
We do not matter to the ANC leadership. We are nothing. They need us only during the general election.
I feel deep hatred and bitterness towards our robbers. I do manage a smile, though, when I hear of the many cases of robbers being despatched by police.
Primarashni Gower co-edits the M&G’s Higher Learning supplement