Killing gene is embedded in our psyche

Over 30 people were killed when police open fire on a crowd of protesting mine workers in Marikana. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Over 30 people were killed when police open fire on a crowd of protesting mine workers in Marikana. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

A colleague this week remarked on how there did not seem to be much discussion or public outrage at the mass killing of seven people who were on an anti-stocktheft drive in a village in KwaZulu-Natal last week.

We, the South African media, record the killing when it happens – and immediately move on to the next story. We are somewhat numb.

The point is particularly poignant if you consider how we reacted with "shock and disbelief" at the mass murder of 12 people during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Denver, Colorado, in the United States a month ago.

For days, we analysed the killings and tried to understand the psychology of the killer. But did we give a hoot about the killings in that KwaZulu-Natal village? Did we know who was behind it? Or their motives? And did we hear the police responding to open threats by the families of the deceased to revenge those killings?

A few days later, 10 people were murdered in a mineworkers' dispute, including two policemen trying to keep the peace – and, again, we were disgusted for a day or two before resuming normal business.

Preventative measures
But why is that? Is it because black life is still cheap? I remember this was the refrain we used to throw at the National Party government before 1994, when thousands of township dwellers were being killed in political violence in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

What do we say now that black people are in charge of government? We know the killings will not stop when government issues a statement that they should stop, or even when it takes some form of action to stop them.

There is only so much in the way of preventative measures that can help; the police cannot be everywhere.
I am becoming convinced that there is something in our national psyche that makes killing come easy. We too easily resort to violence to sort out our problems.

A study this week showed that seven foreign shopowners had been murdered in Gauteng – indeed, it is our pastime. When we cannot handle competition from these shop-owners, we simply bump a few of them off to intimidate the rest.

In looking for answers to why this happens, there is no doubt that our histories as apartheid masters and the dispossessed are relevant; the way the likes of apartheid killer Eugene de Kock would have a braai immediately after killing and burning a freedom fighter, the way Gideon Nieuwoudt and his ilk would bang Steve Biko against a wall until he died, the way informers and policemen were "necklaced" in the 1980s. It is the way we fought for our liberation and others fought to preserve white domination.

I remember, as a boy, my grand­father trying unsuccessfully to shield me from watching a woman burning to death without anyone rushing to her aid after she was accused of being an informer, doused with petrol and set alight.

Our past
It is true that those who carried out the killings, those who survived and those who lost loved ones still carry the scars. Psychologists will tell you that such memories still influence our behaviour, even today, whether consciously or unconsciously.

And so killing comes very easy to us. We should understand where we come from and agree that we are ­victims of our past.

But what is to be done? The deal from the Codesa negotiations was that we would go through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and in the end we had a great deal of reconciliation, some truth-telling – and absolutely no healing. We all are walking ghosts of the past.

The best we can hope for is that our children do not drink from the same well. There have been those who have suggested in desperation that the death penalty be reinstated to punish violent crimes.

But the Mankwanyane case, which abolished the death penalty, set out what should be obvious parameters to curb this avalanche: the certainty that people will be detected, arrested, prosecuted and convicted of their crimes should serve as a deterrent to the commission of crime.

The justice system needs to come to the party so that those who commit crime are aware that they face punishment for their crimes. For as long as people still believe that they can get away with their crimes, our killing rates will remain high. No social cohesion summit can help.

With so many murders in our own back yard, we could all soon become numb to them – but horrified when they happen elsewhere.

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane

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