A word commonly used to describe South Africans’ reactions to news of the killing of its citizens is ‘desensitised’.
Desensitise: “make (someone) less likely to feel shock or distress at scenes of cruelty or suffering, by overexposure to such images; free (someone) from a phobia or neurosis by gradually exposing them to the thing that is feared”.
It is said we have become so used to hearing about and being exposed to the murder of fellow citizens that we have normalised carrying on with life despite the trauma of our violent society. It is this very exposure that has numbed us to what is supposed to be a phobia for violence.
What is it about Hillary Gardee’s murder that has made me feel a cold chill of sensitisation down my spine, made me lose sleep and shed a tear? It is the number of ironies and dates surrounding her life and death that left a deep sense of pain at the failure of our democratic society.
I hope highlighting these ironies will evoke some level of sensitisation in my fellow South Africans.
Gardee went missing on April 29, two days after the celebrations of Freedom Day. She was aged 28 when she was killed and, in April, South Africa celebrated 28 years of democracy.
As a young mother, she was buried on Saturday, the day before Mother’s Day. She had chosen to adopt a baby girl, who called her Mommy. This is something unusual and unheard of, for a single woman her age to adopt a child and take responsibility for bringing the child up.
When the three-year-old child was found she said, “Mommy is fighting”.
One of the Twitter messages posted by her father, Godrich Gardee, which she had written on November 1 last year, says: “As we go vote again”. She had gone to vote in the local government elections, when many young people her age had abstained from exercising this critical democratic right.
Ironically, this Twitter post carried a reminder of the tweet she had posted on May 8 2019, during the national general elections, in which she yet again encouraged other citizens to go and vote: “I hope you voted cause my blood is red”, with the new South African flag next to the message.
Is the Constitution really our shield?
My reflections took me to the writings of Noam Chomsky in his book Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy.
In the introduction to the book, Chomsky talks about “the sharp divide between public opinion and public policy”, in as far as the American system of democracy, in particular, has been presented as the best in the world, whereas, on the contrary, the very “American system is coming to have some of the features of failed states”.
He defines one of the many characteristics of failed states as “their inability or unwillingness to protect their citizens from violence and, perhaps, even destruction”.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who, in 1994, was the chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly that had been tasked with the mandate of drafting a new constitution for the country, wrote the foreword of a book called One Law, One Nation: The Making of the South African Constitution, by Lauren Segal and Sharon Cort. He mentions ANC struggle stalwarts Joe Slovo, Walter Sisulu, OR Tambo and Nelson Mandela, on whose shoulders he said they were standing.
“How could we fail these people who had done so much, given up their whole lives for this struggle? The other fear, of course, was failing our people. How could we explain that we were charged with the responsibility to deliver this final blow to apartheid and tell them that we had failed?”
To Ramaphosa, the finalisation and delivery of a new constitution was a victory worth celebrating.
He went on to say: “Even when the environment seems more complex, as it is now – as we work through a period of turbulence – the one thing that we can always say is great about our nation is that we have a universally respected, phenomenal Constitution and that document is our shield against anything ... It is a repository of everything that I ever dreamt of, that I ever wanted in my life. It gives me strength, it gives me hope, it protects me. If anyone were to violate my rights, our Constitution is my shield.”
Unfortunately this is not what Gardee and countless other victims of violence and crime in our country can say.
The beautiful, well-written Constitution and Bill of Rights that have promised them life, human dignity, freedom of movement, freedom and security of the person, including freedom from all forms of violence and torture, have failed to serve as a shield to protect their dear lives. Unlike for Ramaphosa, it has not been a “shield against anything”.
Women and children live in fear for their lives. Their rights are violated every day. The Constitution is no shield for them.
Many have expressed the contradiction that Chomsky refers to, that, in fact, the Constitution seems to protect the criminals more than the law-abiding citizens.
A society that failed Hillary Gardee
When speaking at the home of the Gardees, Julius Malema, the president of the EFF, said something that shocked a lot of people, and he was attacked by many for the statement. He said “this time they killed the wrong one”, a statement which some people interpreted to mean that all the others who had been killed were the right ones. This statement also did not sit well with me. It came out completely wrong.
However, as I once again spent days grieving for a life lost, I decided to bear with Malema and his comrades, who equally experienced the trauma of having to comfort their politician and attorney colleague who had lost a child. Trauma can make people say stupid things, I concluded.
The last painful irony around Gardee’s death, is that this child was born in Nigeria. Her father, a South African citizen, who has served as a member of Parliament, would have, like all South Africans, hoped his daughter would grow up in a free, democratic, non-sexist and prosperous country that many South Africans believe other Africans leave their countries chasing after. Disappointingly, South Africa took the life of this young lady.
May your soul find eternal rest, Hillary. I wish your little daughter can grow up in a better society than the one that failed you.
Molatoli is a social justice activist and director of Bamboo Seeds Communications