Rape, robbery and anguish in the new South Africa

I was arrested for fighting apartheid, but what good is freedom if rampant violence terrorizes blacks and whites alike?

Published March 28, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

A ringing telephone at 6 a.m. will jangle the nerves, especially when your whole family lives, as mine does, in another time zone. And my mother's voice on the line that October morning was peculiarly high and tinny, not only, I realized, from distance -- calls from South Africa still sound as if they're echoing through interstellar space -- but also from hysteria, barely contained.

"Everyone's all right," she said at once, as she always does (code for no one has died) "but Ben and Annie have had a horrific experience." I braced myself for a tale of burglary, perhaps even mugging, since my brother Ben and his wife, Annie, live in high-crime Johannesburg -- a place where, at parties, hosts hire security guards to walk guests to their cars; a place where drivers run red lights for fear of carjacking; a place where gangs rob bank trucks by blowing them to bits with AK-47s and then looting the wrecks.

But as I listened, with a creeping sense of dread, I realized that something far worse had happened. Not only to Ben and Annie, which it certainly had, but also, in a minor key, to me. To me and my stubborn complacency about South Africa after apartheid -- the "new South Africa," as it's called there, always in quotes.

Here's the short version, which is what I heard from my mother that morning, over a year ago (details came slowly, over the next few days). Ben, who's 37, had come home from work that night after midnight. He works in arts management, so late nights at performances or events are part of his job. Annie, his 29-year-old wife (or bride, as I still thought of her, since the last time I'd seen them was at their wedding that March) was asleep at home, a modest townhouse in a gated suburban complex, typical for young, professional, but not particularly affluent white South Africans. As usual, Ben drove his car through the electronic gate and parked in the lot. He was walking the few hundred yards down the path to his door when somebody emerged from the darkness behind him and thrust a gun to his head.

Although Ben immediately offered up his wallet and car keys, three young men with guns forced their way into the house, proceeded to rape Annie (in Ben's presence, à la Clockwork Orange), pistol-whip both of them, tie them up, gag them and torture them intermittently for the next five hours. During those hours, having bundled Ben and Annie into duvets so they couldn't see, breathe or move, the intruders robbed and trashed the place at their leisure, pausing only to cook themselves a meal and drink all the liquor in the house.

Quite a party they threw themselves, apparently, interrupting it now and then to threaten Ben and Annie with death if they so much as coughed (which, given that they had towels stuffed into their mouths, was hard to avoid). At some point in this very long night, the men left, loading Ben's car with everything they could lift, but Ben and Annie, not knowing if their assailants would return, or if all of them had indeed left, waited until they heard birdsong before daring to move.

A horrific experience by anyone's standards. But hardly uncommon in Johannesburg, which now has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world. The murder rate there is about nine times that of the United States. A rape occurs every 10 minutes in South Africa today, and a violent housebreaking is so common that it doesn't even make the papers and is only perfunctorily investigated by the police, who, outnumbered, overworked, undertrained and often corrupt, hold out no hope of solving it (or the thousands like it). The only noteworthy aspect of this case, apparently, is that my brother and sister-in-law weren't killed.

Something else worth noting: As my mother narrated these events, she didn't -- as far as I can recall -- specify the race of the three young men. She didn't need to. I took it for granted, correctly, that they were black. The overwhelming majority of violent crimes in South Africa, against people of all races, are committed by black offenders. Blacks are, of course, the majority in South Africa, but their involvement in violent crime is still vastly disproportionate to their numbers.

Random violence, rape, robbery can erupt into anyone's life, no matter where you live or who you are -- we know this only too well in the United States. But this incident, this South African statistic, struck me with a peculiarly bitter poignancy. Not only because family members were involved, though obviously for that reason. Not only because of the unfairness of it -- my brother worked for the racially integrated Market Theatre in the 1980s and returned to Johannesburg from London in 1991 to become part of the "new South Africa" -- because violence is always unfair. (And class privilege is still class privilege, however clean its conscience and its hands.)

No, what I experienced was a different, more complicated kind of confusion. As I listened, in the October pre-dawn, to my mother recounting these events, I thought I could detect in her voice not only shock, not only pain, not only disbelief, but a shrill note of vindication. My mother is a native-born South African, profoundly, reflexively, candidly racist. For as long as I can remember, she has been telling us, her children, that "they" are out to get us, that "they" will break into our houses, "they" will beat us, rob us, rape us.

And now "they" have.

The first thing I did after hearing this news was call a close friend, a fellow South African expatriate who lives in New York. Attempting a tone of world-weary irony, the tone with which, like mental tongs, we've been passing bits of political information to each other lately, I said: "Want to hear a bulletin from the 'new South Africa?'" I don't know why I was trying to sound blasi, nor why I imagined I could. My friend later told me that, as soon as she heard my voice, she thought someone had died.

The next thing I did, numb and blank as if stun-gunned, was wash and dress for work, put lipstick on my bloodless face. Still numb, I headed out of the house to the subway, remembering, as I passed the bank, that I was flat out of cash. At the bank door, a panhandler stirred in his nest of newspaper to ask for change. I glanced down at him. He happened to be black. "Why should I give you anything," I thought, viciously, before I could stop myself. Inside the bank, as if in retribution, the machines were down. I went over to someone's desk, the manager's, I think. "May I help you?" he asked. "I need ..." I said. Covering my face with my hands, I burst into tears.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

So now "they" have -- have beaten, robbed, raped -- and where does that leave me? Since, as a child, I first began to be prickled by doubts about the way we were living -- "But why does the maid live in a room in our backyard and her children live somewhere else?" -- I've resisted my mother's racism, her birthright (and mine) as a white South African. Resisted it, often, in confused, inchoate ways indistinguishable from acting out, but resisted it nonetheless. I've spent years outing my mother as a racist so that I didn't have to be one -- though of course (see above) I am.

I left South Africa in 1978 because I didn't want to face long-term jail or house arrest, like so many of my friends, but the truth is I would have left anyway. You didn't have to do much to be arrested in those days: You just had to speak against apartheid, demonstrate against apartheid, write against apartheid, all of which I did, and was duly arrested for. (And then arrested again when I returned, 13 years later, as a reporter, to the wrong place at the wrong time: a large demonstration in central Johannesburg which the police broke up with machine guns and dogs.)

I left to go to graduate school. I left to read books, see movies, write without censorship, talk on an untapped telephone. I left because I wanted to put 10,000 miles between myself and my family. I left because I couldn't stand the guilt. I left because I could, because I have a document, dated 10/04/1973, numbered (0178) BUN 10047, that advises the reader, in English and Afrikaans, to "Please note that -- SHUTE, JENEFER PATRICIA, Identiteitsnommer -- 560711 0049 00 1, has been classified -- AS A WHITE PERSON." I left, brandishing my British passport, because I wanted to shed my South African identity like a skin. I left because I hated white South Africans, though I'm one myself -- which causes problems with pronouns, among other things.

All these years -- as an angry adolescent, as an anti-apartheid activist, as an exile separated from family and country for 13 years and as a writer -- I have labored hard to prove my mother wrong. I thought, finally, that I had -- that history had. But now, with the violation of my family, I see that she has, in a sense, been proved right. Right for all the wrong reasons, perhaps, or for reasons more complex than she could ever acknowledge, but nevertheless, in a sense, right.

So now I wonder, what does that make me? Wrong? How, I wonder, are my smug political certainties, forged during the anti-apartheid struggle of the '70s and '80s, going to accommodate the violent reality of post-apartheid South Africa? And if my mother and I could ever talk about this, what would I say?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

A few days after my mother's call, I managed, finally, to get Ben on the phone. He and Annie were staying at her sister's house, Annie under sedation but still crying all the time, unable to be left alone for a second. In a tone of grim composure, he narrated the whole story, the exact sequence of events, of which I'd heard only fragments so far, flashes, with dark, terrifying stretches of the unknown in between. Even though what he told me was heart-sickening, it was somehow better to know all the details, not to have to imagine them, as I had tried to do over several sleepless nights. Now all I had to do was assimilate them.

A few details haunted me, not necessarily the most brutal. It haunted me that, when the gunman first stepped out of the darkness, he yanked Ben's sweater over his head from behind, so Ben saw a face, a gun and nothing more; it haunted me that the robbers ripped the shoes right off Ben's feet, the wedding ring off Annie's hand. It haunted me that they branded the carpets with their cigarettes. And it haunted me that they kept asking Ben where his gun was, knowing no white South African household would be without one. (It was in his car.)

I had also forgotten that Ben is severely claustrophobic -- won't even enter an elevator -- and so, in being gagged and hooded, swaddled and bound, for several airless hours, he was, along with all the other terrors being visited upon him, making his own private trip to George Orwell's Room 101.

Two things pained me the most, though, two things that he said. In that same tone, measured but grim, he kept repeating, over and over again, that he could never have imagined such terror, "Just sheer terror, Jen -- being afraid, every single second, that you were about to die." He also, as he told his story, kept saying, almost matter-of-factly, to establish chronology, "That was before they raped Annie," or "That was after they raped Annie."

To hear those words coming out of my brother's mouth, referring to the woman he'd so recently married with such joy, cut me to the core. Those words made it all real, irreversibly real, allowed me to glimpse, like a parallel universe of pain, what the statistics must mean: 62 murders, 73 attempted murders, 136 rapes, 174 armed robberies and 606 assaults on an average South African day. On a single warm Johannesburg night.

Tips for tourists from the South African police:

  • Never walk the streets at night, especially in Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban.

  • Do not invite attention by wearing exposed jewelry or watches.
  • Keep 20 rand ($4) at the ready for muggers at all times.
  • Be particularly alert near house gates, driveways and garages. When entering or leaving the property, look out for suspicious vehicles or persons.
  • Be wary of suspicious activity at traffic lights and stop signs.
  • When stopped, be ready to accelerate quickly if approached by strangers.
  • Ignore anyone indicating that there is something wrong with your car. Drive immediately to the nearest police station or garage for a check.
  • Beware of people seeking directions, particularly in a parking lot.
  • If you become a crime victim, try to remember as many details as possible.

In recognition of recent crime trends, the police might have added: Don't get out of your car to investigate a flat tire on a nail-strewn street; don't stop in rural areas for cattle lying in the road; don't take a bathroom break in the bushes beside a major highway, otherwise your children will have to sit for hours with your corpse and no one will stop.

For full disclosure, they might also have added: On any given day, according to a recent survey, about 10,000 of us officers will fail to show up for work, fewer than a third of us will be doing any active policing, and, oh yes, if you call, it might take us a while to get there -- say, about four hours.

This wasn't, I must add, Ben and Annie's experience with the police. The police were there within minutes and treated Annie with exemplary sensitivity (something rape victims in South Africa can't take for granted). But Ben and Annie, as I've mentioned, are white, and the vast majority of victims of every kind of crime in South Africa are black.

I have to keep reminding myself of this, as I fixate on Ben and Annie's trauma, reminding myself that criminal depredation and lack of police protection are rampant, out of control, in the areas where black people live. So are guns -- the country is awash in light weapons, legacy of the freedom struggle and of regional wars; you can buy an AK-47 on the streets of Johannesburg for about 40 bucks, and most of them end up in black neighborhoods, terrorizing the poor. Black women and children are also, overwhelmingly, the victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in South Africa, which has the chilling rate of 124 rapes per 100,000 females (compared to about 39 per 100,000 in the United States).

Certainly, crimes against whites in their suburban citadels attract the most attention, the most outrage -- as, for instance, in this essay -- because they're bad for business and worse for tourism. But the affluent can always buy better insurance, build higher walls, install shriller alarms, pay private guards to escort them to their doors and sit in their living rooms overnight (which is what Ben and Annie have done). The poor can only continue, in silence, to be preyed upon.

I knew all this, of course, before Ben and Annie were attacked, understood, in theory, all the factors contributing to South Africa's high crime rate (which I was quick to label the "legacy of apartheid") -- a rapidly swelling population, now approaching 38 million; an unemployment rate variously estimated at 20 to 40 percent; an inefficient and discredited police force, which was used mainly for political repression under apartheid; lack of adequate housing, education, health care; deep economic divisions; and, in certain areas, the true legacy of apartheid, a complete rupture of the social fabric.

I knew all this, in the abstract. I just didn't want to, didn't have to, confront it. I wasn't ready to admit that crime and violence on such a scale were not, as advocates for the dispossessed might say, a kind of crude social justice. And anyway, we never expected it to be Utopia, this "new South Africa" of ours, I'd claim: For us it was miracle enough that it existed at all.

But now, as violence erupted vicariously into my life, I had to confront the fact that such lawlessness might, in the end, imperil the very freedom and democracy South Africans have struggled so hard for. For if you're not free to walk the streets, then what is your freedom worth?

When, after my conversation with Ben, I talked to my mother again, she was obsessed with AIDS. Annie's rape had been, quite literally, my mother's worst fear made flesh -- the fear that had restricted bicycle-riding and sunbathing for my sister and myself growing up, that had governed the length of our skirts -- and she could speak, for a while, of little else: What the rapist had and hadn't done, what Annie had and hadn't said, and so on. There are, of course, objective grounds for her anxiety -- almost 3 million South Africans, most of them black, are HIV positive -- and Annie was already being treated prophylactically with protease inhibitors.

But as I listened to my mother speak, as I attended to the hushed, horrified thrill in her voice, I realized that what obsessed her wasn't disease but contamination, a sense, almost, of cellular miscegenation. A worse nightmare for her, perhaps, than rape itself.

My mother was born into an English-speaking family, of, as far as I can tell, spectacularly ill-matched parents: Her mother was South African, with dour-faced Afrikaner Calvinists not too far back in the bloodline, her father an immigrant Welsh Jew, with, it turns out, interestingly olive-skinned North African antecedents. World War II kept the couple apart for five years, and then, as the marriage foundered, they separated for good.

What little I know about my mother's childhood -- something else we can't talk about -- suggests a makeshift family, headed by a flighty and unfit single mother, hanging on to the lower middle class by its fingernails. My mother was smart, skipped two grades at school, but there was no money for college -- hence, I think, much of her lingering bitterness and class resentment, her fear of falling. (Hence, too, the overachieving daughter with the Ph.D. and the peculiar guilt that comes not only from surpassing the parents but from turning the parents' gifts against them.)

My father, likewise excluded from a college education, is an Englishman who came to South Africa in his early 20s for work and never left. He met my mother on the job; she was a bookkeeper, he was a flirt. I don't think he ever intended to immigrate: I think one day he just looked around him, at the job and the wife and the kids and the servants and the house, and realized that he had.

Like so many of his compatriots, he retains to this day his BBC diction, his navy blazer and his stiff upper lip; he pretends, after 40 years, not to understand Afrikaans; and he decided decades ago that, in public as in domestic life, silence was the key to survival.

I think my mother has always been afraid. Afraid, as a child, of not having enough. Afraid, as an adult, of having too much, which might then be wrested away. Afraid of being home alone, while "they" lurked outside, but equally afraid of leaving the house. Afraid of driving, of car accidents. Afraid of losing her husband to heart attacks or younger, slimmer women. Afraid of the servants -- the maid, the nanny, the gardener, the laundry woman -- who, she knew, hated her. Afraid, all her life, of "them," who inhabited her nightmares and her backyard.

So we lived in a cage, with bars on the windows and dogs at the door; every few years, prompted by some inner clock, my mother would grow to loathe the house we were living in and put it up for sale, as if moving equaled mobility, as if changing the cage would make her feel free.

And so, as I listened to my mother speak with horrified fascination about the rape and the AIDS risk, instead of compassion, instead of concern, I felt the familiar irritation rising up, the urge to lecture, to dismiss. The same urge I felt, a few years ago, when she told me, with terror, of having her handbag stolen off the hall table in the middle of the afternoon -- and I wanted to laugh, as if it were somehow comical, the intruder in the afternoon, the hall-table handbag snatcher.

The same irritation I felt when she would compulsively retell her favorite horror story: the night that my sister, alone in the house with two small children, awoke to find a pair of knife-bearing burglars at the end of the hall. (She called the police, they fled). A bad experience, yes, a close shave, scary, I always wanted to say, but surely, in your racist paranoia, you exaggerate, Mom. Don't you?

I could have gone back, for good, in 1991, when Nelson Mandela was released, the ANC was legalized, and everything, incredibly, seemed possible. But I didn't: I went, notebook in hand, for a five-week visit, an alien revisiting the planet of my own past, awaiting an epiphany that never came. I could have gone back in 1994, when, even more incredibly, apartheid was over, the ANC was in power, and a new post-apartheid society was scrambling into existence, full of hope and need.

But I didn't: I didn't want to, couldn't face it, thereby, in a sense, giving the lie to a lifetime's worth of politics. Without the alibi of exile, I'd run out of excuses. I just didn't have the courage and generosity to live there again, that was all.

Instead, I've made a series of visits since 1991, each one followed by a bleak depression: visits for Christmas, for book tours, for Ben and Annie's wedding and for my parents' 40th wedding anniversary, where, marooned in a remote beach cottage by record-breaking rains, a never-before assembled family group (my parents, my sister, her husband, their two sons, Ben and Annie, an uncle whose wife had recently died, and myself) gradually decompensated, like something out of Bergman, over 10 bitter days. I returned to New York with pneumonia.

So, no, I don't get back much. And when I do, I'm struck by how little (outside the inner cities) people's daily lives have changed. You see black faces where you didn't before; white South Africans are poorer and more afraid. And human life, which apartheid made cheap, has become, unthinkably, cheaper.

That Christmas, two months after the assault, we exchanged gifts as usual, Ben and Annie and I. I gave Ben a new wallet to replace the one that had been stolen; Annie got the NYPD sweatshirt she'd asked for. They sent me some notepaper made of elephant dung, a new local craft, ecologically correct. A joke, perhaps, on the writer in the family.

Ben and Annie have moved back, with great reluctance, into their home, refurnished and redecorated with insurance money. They've talked about moving, possibly to Cape Town, where the crime rate is lower, but Ben's work depends on the arts scene in Johannesburg, so they feel stuck.

Annie is back at work, at her marketing job for a hotel chain, but she only recently started driving again -- she feels too vulnerable in her car -- and still can't be left alone. They've hired a private guard to meet them at the car when they get home, and escort them to their front door. The condo complex has also hired a guard to monitor the gate, another to patrol on foot.

Yet Ben and Annie still don't feel safe, are still swamped, several times a day, by rage and pain and fear. They're seeing a counselor, of course, and waiting, patiently, for time to do its work, to let them get on, if they can, with life and love and babies.

In the meanwhile, this is how they live. This is how millions of South Africans live now, white South Africans and black South Africans, in fear.

I don't know what to say to Ben and Annie except -- given our Anglo emotional training -- stilted words of love and comfort. I don't know what to say to anyone who asks why this happened: It's clear that the old "legacy of apartheid" line isn't going to work much longer, not even for me. And least of all do I know what to say to my mother. I don't think I can face another conversation about how "they" all have AIDS.

But I wonder whether, one day, we might not be able to have another kind of conversation. And if we did, if we could, what would I say? That, my South African mother, you lived your whole life afraid -- and, in the end, it turned out there was something to be afraid of? Not what you thought it was -- not "them" -- but what we South Africans, all of us, have wrought.

By Jenefer Shute

Jenefer Shute is the author of the novels "Life Size" and "Sex Crimes." She lives in New York.

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