Wielding a sjambok

2010-08-24 00:00

ONE hears a lot about sjamboks these days. Is this instrument a standard feature of everyday life? Where does one buy a sjambok? In a hardware shop? Or down some little lane rather like the special shop in Diagon Alley that sells wands to the likes of Harry Potter? Maybe sjamboks come boxed in slim boxes with a variety of delicate designs to suit individual tastes and preferences?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What is a sjambok? It is a word that I have lived with all my life. A South African word. In the newspaper at the weekend, was the report that staff at a local mental hospital were beaten by “sjambok-wielding men” wearing National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) T-shirts. Not that a crazed, bench-wielding, psychotic patient attacked staff but instead a formal union-organised group of men sjambokked staff. What an upside-down world. Have we found a new mental disorder?

How does one understand the psychological mind of a person lashing a sjambok? Research tells me that the old image I carry in my head was more that of the big circus whip that could dramatically crack back on itself. I have never seen a real sjambok. I learnt that it is usually a strip of hippo or rhino hide (or just may be the penis) cut thin and rolled into a whip. It is between one and 1,5 metres long and tapers from about 25 mm at the handgrip.

A plastic version was used by the apartheid police, but the sjambok has a long history. The Voortrekkers used a sjambok for driving cattle. Sjamboks are excellent for killing snakes. A similar instrument was probably used in historical literature across the world when some poor soul was “taken out and flogged”. The term is thought to come from Indonesia where the cambuk was used for punishing slaves and there is a Persian term, the chabuk. In the Belgian Congo it was known as the fimbo and used to force labour from local people. So it becomes clear that this is a tool for driving the “mindless”, be they cattle or slaves or a dumb labour force. I see some reference to it in the S&M context but prefer not to go there except to emphasise that both sadism and masochism go well with the word “whip”. This type of whip would make a really good emblem if one wanted to capture the strange relationship between a totalitarian monster and a mindless, clumsy and disempowered, labour force.

That would be so simple. We could suggest that the Nehawu representatives with scant respect for the intellectual rights of the people they serve were suffering from some throwback glitch; some warped chip of memory from apartheid or slave labour times. Temporary post-traumatic stress disorder. I wish it ended there.

But in this same time frame I hear of parents taking a sjambok to their children. Children they then want psychologists to “fix” for a brighter future. I hear of husbands sjambokking wives, the mothers of their children. On a TV soapie, a wife brandishes a sjambok at her husband. Then in research on family violence throughout Africa from Botswana to Ethiopia to Zimbabwe, I read of the work of the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children. I read research that presents endless numbing details of family beatings.

Overshadowed by the HIV/Aids disaster, we forget that these other dismal statistics of human cruelty are rampant on our continent. And here, for all to see, we have health worker union members wielding the sjambok against their own. Forcing mindlessness, terror and subjugation. I am so ashamed.

And so I want to ask the question: who is this man or woman who owns a sjambok? How does he or she think? “Oh, I had better buy a sjambok. There might be a strike this year…”

I wonder where people keep their sjamboks? Folded with the sheets? Behind the back door? Do the men bring them out and compare them, telling tales of prowess, over a beer maybe? And what do the women say? Are they horrified? Or approving? And how does one learn to use a sjambok? Does one practise privately? Or go for lessons? Just what is in the personality of a man or woman who must find expression via a sjambok?

• Anne Lupton is a local psychologist.

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