In Afrikaans “skielik” means suddenly.
It is also the name of the cluster of shacks where dirt-poor black people live in the tiny North West hamlet of Swartruggens (literally “black backs”, though that could as easily derive from a topographical feature or any number of species of animal as it could refer to the backs of human beings).
However you choose to read the place names, the terrible tragedy that unfolded on January 14 this year in Skielik is so loaded with vicious, visceral irony, it could easily have been drawn from a Stephen King horror novel.
A seemingly ordinary 17-year-old with choirboy-innocent good looks takes a .303 hunting rifle, complete with telescopic sight, and suddenly embarks on a mindless shooting rampage, indiscriminately gunning down anyone he sees. Before he is subdued, four people – including a babe in arms – are dead and 11 wounded.
This is the work of Satan surely, we say, with justification. What could drive this … this child to such mind-numbing savagery? He must have been possessed.
Ten months later jaw-dropping details of “what possessed” Johan Nel would emerge in a court room in a town called Mmabatho (literally “mother of the people”). Details of deep-seated hatred of black people, details of a boy in psychological purgatory, details of missed signals and racist communities, details of a complete lack of remorse, details of incomprehensible horror. And a young man, tugging uncomfortably at his shirt collar, repeating again and again: “Skuldig” (guilty).
At the same time as this youth stood impassively confessing his crimes, about 400km away two family pets ripped their 74-year-old owner to shreds. Grace Page, who lived just south of Johannesburg (the urban antithesis of Skielik), died a hideous blood-soaked, lonely, agonising death in the jaws of her two beloved pit bull terriers.
As our minds struggle to make sense of the senseless, we scrabble about desperately groping for explanations. We need to understand that which defies comprehension. In the process we dive head first into SA’s favourite pastime, blameology.
Johan Nel is a racist, born of racists, bred a racist. He is just a racist – after all, look, he is white. It’s typical of the breed.
Pit bull terriers are vicious, they’re unpredictable. They’re natural born killers. After all, look, they have teeth. It’s typical of the breed.
What monumental bullshit!
Aside from the obscene generalisation, there is not a shred of scientific evidence to support either bucketload of bigotry posing as righteous indignation. There is no such thing as a bad breed. Or, for that matter, a good breed. There is only comforting mythology.
I’ve always had a major problem with simplistic answers. I can understand how they might originate in primitive cultures fervently trying to explain why things are as they are. But I have as little tolerance for the religious fanatics who blame God or Satan with equal ease, as I have for the idiot armies who would cosset themselves in the absolution of it being someone else’s fault.
Funny how we all pat ourselves on the back in an orgy of shared bonhomie when the Boks or Bafana do well, but when things go inexplicably wrong it’s always Joe’s turn to buy the drinks.
To a greater or a lesser degree, we are all responsible for dead black people amid rusty shacks and a lonely boy in a jail cell. Just as we are all to blame for a butchered granny and two dead pets.
There’s a thing called chaos theory which, in essence, tries to comprehend how seemingly random events in the universe both cause and are caused by disconnected other events.
Some romantically call this the butterfly effect. The moniker is rather sweet and the “effect” is told in many ways, but suppose a butterfly takes to the air in China in search of nectar. A bird swoops on the butterfly, but is pounced on by a cat it didn’t see. The sudden flurry of movement startles a sleeping dog which starts barking excitedly causing an electrician to jerk his pliers in surprise.
The pliers cause a short in the wires he was working on and spark a power outage across several city blocks. Traffic lights go out and a petrol bowser jackknifes, swerving off the road into an illegal fireworks sweatshop.
A massive explosion occurs sending shockwaves through the unstable ground that trigger a massive 9,7 earthquake with shattering tremors sending tsunamis 80m high racing at 100s of kilometres an hour across the South China Seas wiping out entire islands, washing across Taiwan and Japan where they inundate two nuclear power plants causing a meltdown of the radioactive cores and the worst global catastrophe in human existence.
All perfectly plausible and utterly unpredictable. Yet linked in a terrifying web of cause and effect.
So too it is with Johan Nel and Grace Page. Maybe if Nel’s homicidal mania had been spotted earlier, the Skielik tragedy could have been avoided. Maybe if the magistrate had recognised the danger signals in the 13-year-old boy obsessed with hunting, who had shot at an unidentified black man four years earlier, he could have insisted on psychological treatment and that may have been that.
So, the magistrate is to blame. Yeah, right.
But maybe the problem would never have arisen had Nel not experienced crime as he had. So it was the criminals? But maybe they would never have turned to crime if life was not so black and bleak in Swartruggens.
But if earth was given an enema, Swartruggens would be a hot contender for insertion. So, maybe if the place had better local government … Maybe if North West was better administered … Maybe if we had a competent government … Maybe if the majority had not been disenfranchised for so many years … Maybe if Britain had not beaten the Boers … Maybe if there had not been a Great Trek … Maybe …
See where this all goes? An exercise in purest futility.
Flip the coin around, as the populist petit noir of positivitism would have us do. Maybe at some time in the next 25 years inmate Nel reads a book in prison and goes on to study medicine, and through diligence and hard work and a unique insight, discovers a vaccine against HIV/Aids.
Or maybe he gets murdered by a black inmate before six months are up?
Either way the futility of blameology and finger-pointing is matched only by the futility of unrealistic white-washing and snake-oil salesmanship. We have a shared responsibility to be alert for the subtle shifts that could avert tragedy and connect disparate dots. But there is also a peculiar and specific responsibility to be pragmatic and rational about the promises you make and the motives that underpin those promises.
Let that be a warning to our rulers and their private-sector partners, to the mega-foot-in-mouthed Zumalemas and their “It’s possible” spin-doctors. Destiny, fate or kismet is just a lightning-flash twist away from biting you in the arse.
It’s also a harsh lesson to all those wannabe “leaders” in the corporatosphere chockful of all the buzz words, intoxicated by the sound of their own voices as they order minions about, cashing in on what other people manage to get done. There are universes separating menial management from leadership. If We Were Soldiers has no other lesson, that is it. Management is just a function. Leadership changes the course of everything. Managers demand respect. Leaders know they have to earn it.
And know that it can be lost as easily as dropping your name tag.
This past week brought home the message of managers who have grown too big for their boots. Three titans of global corporatocracy, the “leaders” of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler sat like stunned tweenies, as silent as their private jets parked at Dulles Airport, while politicians scourged them for their gross insensitivity.
“There is a delicious irony in seeing private luxury jets flying into Washington DC and people coming off of them with tin cups in their hands, saying that they’re going to be trimming down and streamlining their businesses,” Gary Ackerman from New York told the chief executive officers of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors at a hearing of the house financial services committee.
“It’s almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high hat and tuxedo. It kind of makes you a little bit suspicious.”
He added: “Couldn’t you all have downgraded to first class or jet-pooled or something to get here? It would have at least sent a message that you do get it.”
But the three of them could not have given a hoot for sense or sensitivity. They were too busy being powerful. Like John Lennon said: “Happiness is a warm gun”.
And that’s just how “skielik” might can turn to blight – a spring shower of power can turn into a hurricane of pain.
We, the have-nots cheered, rejoiced in vindication that they got their due come-uppances. And then, as those blinded by their power always do, they tried to spin their way out of it.
But lest we dance into the same quicksand; we all do that when cornered and we know we have done wrong.
It’s a nettle-rash reaction. In this world of chaos, of the butterfly effect, of thoughtless cause and random unpredictable effect, it’s wise to remember humble pie is a meal best shared in equal parts.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
In Afrikaans “skielik” means suddenly.