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No cinematic escape from Cape Flats life

Mrs Pakkies first heard the word “rape” on the radio, when she was 26 years old, even though she had been raped since she was a four-year-old girl called Ellen.

The many men who raped her included strangers, relatives and some of her mother’s boyfriends.

Her family lived under conditions of poverty on the Cape Flats. This is a community that the colonial and apartheid states had thoroughly brutalised. It is also a community that knows the violent continuities between apartheid South Africa and the neocolonial, post-apartheid South Africa only too well.

Even after she had become an adult and tried to carve out a life as a married woman in Lavender Hill, men continued to prey on Mrs Pakkies. She was raped again. She fell pregnant and managed to love her son born of this heinous crime.

She protected Abie from the truth of his violent origins until a drunk relative hurled it at the young man. (This casual micro-aggression on the part of a relative is a form of psychological violence that is often as prevalent as physical assault.)

Ellen did her best for her beloved son. But she was a mother, not a magician. She could not shield him from the bullying and taunting of children at school that followed the gossip about his conception.

She could also not guarantee that he would be spared the consequences of growing up in a grossly deprived, drug-infested neighbourhood.

It was almost inevitable that he would succumb to the evil drug that is tik. Once he became addicted to this substance, the prospect of death remained an ever-present threat.

In fact, Abie died twice.

He “died” the first time, from tik addiction. He died a second time when Ellen, with eerie calm, tied him up while he was asleep and strangled him.

In the film Ellen: Die Storie van Ellen Pakkies, there is a scene when the now habitual criminal and drug addict Abie attacks his mother with a huge kitchen knife.

Minutes after his uncontrollable, violent fit of rage ends, he breaks down and cries inconsolably.

In a rare moment of lucidity, he becomes an innocent little boy again, pleading with his mother to forgive him; saying it was not him who attacked her. It is then that he grasps that his true self has been killed by tik.

Of course, the monster under the spell of tik re-emerges time and again to terrorise little Abie’s ghost and his mother.

Abie was no match for the drug. Violence and criminality followed in his wake with him stealing goods from the family home, attempting to burn down the house, peddling drugs, breaking into cars and other acts all aimed at getting cash for the next binge.

The alternative was to experience withdrawal symptoms so horrific that, as I watched a scene showing Abie experiencing them, I wished I could jump into the screen and give him his next fix.

The drug, quite literally, took Abie away from Ellen. He was a monster when he was high. He was a monster when he was not high.

I’ve never cried as much while watching a film. I was also tempted several times to walk out because the compelling portrayal of what had happened felt too real to count as cinematic escape.

Indeed, it was and is an all-too-real story in our country.

His mother had been brutalised since she was a child. The men who raped her were secure in the knowledge that they would get away with their violence — rapists are protected by a conspiracy of silence in families and neighbourhoods.

They also benefit from a criminal justice system that is friendly to them and unfriendly toward survivors.

There were many triggers of memory for me while watching this film, based on a true story.

It reminded me of a woman from a very respected family in the working-class community I grew up in. Her husband was well loved and had been in the army with my father.He was a beautiful soul when sober but was prone to abuse when drunk. Like Mrs Pakkies, this woman had endured decades of abuse and it all became too much for her. She killed him one night in a fit of desperation.

In law, Mrs Pakkies — and the aunt in my community — are deemed murderers. But the law is a blunt instrument. It doesn’t always care for the biography that precedes a murderous act.

I could hear the empathetic sobs in the cinema during the final scene of Ellen; when the court recognised that Mrs Pakkies had been failed by the state and by her community. For once, law and justice coincided.

Mrs Pakkies had done everything to seek help for her boy. Wherever she turned — the local clinic, the rehab centre, the police, the courts — the result was not productive, restorative or healing. The structural conditions of her life remained untouched.

The poor are often failed by the state. Many people, who do criminal wrong because of the effect extreme trauma has had on them,are judged most harshly by the same system that has failed to protect them from the social conditions that cause such trauma.

Luckily for Mrs Pakkies, the judicial officer who adjudicated her case showed her mercy.

She is a self-confessed murderer but she is also a victim, just like her son was.

The moral of Ellen is not that we should abandon criminal law cases. Society couldn’t function if we let each other off the hook. But levels of criminality in our society will not be reduced if we never ask why and how people become monsters unrecognisable even to themselves.

We need to do better. The stories of life on the Cape Flats also challenge us to self-examine class and race prejudices we have about people in communities not deemed politically important enough to grab national attention.

For example, when a wealthy mother strangles her children, we rush to put psychology experts on television to explain her behaviour. We seek reasons to elucidate her abhorrent actions that we instinctively characterise as unnatural and surely out of character.

When poor or working-class mothers lose the plot, we mostly condemn them before — if at all — we try to understand them.

These class prejudices are invariably racialised in our context, and not only along the familiar black and white lines. Coloured boys and men are pathologised in ways that feed off some of the cruellest and crudest stereotypes about the coloured population.

We also criminalise poor and working-class drug addicts. A wealthy teenager who murders his family while high on drugs makes us yearn for comprehension. In the case of Abie Pakkies, however, one does not automatically ask why and how he could have turned on his mother. We seem to reserve most of our sympathy for people on the cushy side of the inequality divide.

This is why the film Ellen is one of the most important South African films in recent years. It does justice to the complex truth of life in Lavender Hill.

If only our contact with people on the other side of the tracks did not begin and end with a trip to the cinema.

I have a nephew I worry about. His image kept flashing through my head as I watched this film. He has flirted with drugs since he was a child. He is hardly an adult and he has already been in prison several times.

My nephew, just like Abie, is both a victim of a family and a community that let him down, myself included, and he is already a perpetrator of wrongdoing.

I, and we, need to do more than leave the cinema drenched in tears. 

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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