Clem Sunter

15 000 lives snuffed out

2012-09-26 13:40

Clem Sunter

My grandfather was murdered in London while he was walking in the street during one of the blackouts of the Second World War. He was wacked on the head by a mugger and died of complications in hospital. One of my close colleagues in Anglo American, and probably the most brilliant corporate finance expert the company has ever had, was killed on his doorstep in Johannesburg.

The father of one of my daughter’s friends was found in the boot of a burnt-out car in the Eastern Cape. The son of a relative of my wife, who was a lawyer and did charitable work in Hillbrow, was shot in cold blood. The young nephew of dear friends was lured out of a garden and killed in a coastal resort.

Life as a candle

With the exception of my grandfather, all the others had their lives prematurely ended during my lifetime and in South Africa. As for friends of friends, we have had two murders in Johannesburg this year. In how many countries anywhere in the world could you go to a dinner party where everybody at the table could recount similar stories? Certainly, in London I stuck out like a sore thumb with my grandfather’s wretched demise. Nobody else had a single example.

I visualise the taking of life as candles being snuffed out. Each of us is a candle that is lit at birth. The little flame sputters and grows and for a time can provide light for an entire room. Then the flame gradually subsides and finally dies out when the wick is exhausted. It only happens once for every person, so they have to cast as much light as possible during that brief period and glow as intensely as they can – lighting up the lives of other people and particularly their families. Over a couple of generations, relatives and others may share memories about your life as a candle; but then you are forgotten forever unless you are very famous.

Every year in South Africa, more than 15 000 candles are snuffed out viciously by murderers. Black candles, white candles, coloured candles – that little flame at the top of the wax is extinguished in an evil and uncaring manner. Think of how much time it would take to snuff out 15 000 candles. In real life, think of the space that is occupied by 15 000 people: 10 office blocks, 50 planes, 100 hotels, a third of a rugby stadium. All gone. Numbers cannot express the loss. Each one is a human spirit.

A sad reflection

It just goes on remorselessly every week. Somewhere another candle, beloved by other candles, is rudely destroyed with the perpetrator walking away with his flame comfortably still lit. Before you say anything, I know that women commit murders too, but the vast majority are committed by young men. “I am” because you are no more. What a sad reflection on human nature that you have to terminate somebody else’s existence to affirm your own. Or else you just don’t care.

Don’t blame it on poverty and inequality. There are lots of poor people with proudly burning flames who would never dream of snuffing out another candle. They want their own and their loved ones’ candles to burn as long as possible.  Normal people do. They just live in constant fear of becoming the next statistic.

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