Plucking Out the Thistles: On Farm Murders and Oblivion

2012-12-03 06:19

Confronting the truth is an exercise in gardening. You often need to pluck out the sow-thistle before you get to the budding magnolia. More often than ever, you might just find prickly and irritating sow-thistles. Not because you have planted them but because you disregard them.

The reality of farm murders in South Africa is one that we cannot escape. Like that bothersome sow-thistle you see in your garden and on the roadside, it is there to remind you of the reality unknown to many of us. The thistle stares at you- trying to go about your business -it is there in your garden ogling you.

This past Saturday, AfriForum marched to the office of the Minister of Police to handover a memorandum demanding the prioritization of farm murders. While I often hold quick jabs to this organization - entirely because the occasional abrasive manner in which they engage on issues facing contemporary South Africa – this time I see what they’re on about, partially.

Our Collective Thistles

Most of us suffer from selective morality. This means that we individually or collectively decide on the things we utterly loathe and those things which we consider to be morally reprehensible. We then rank them in order of priority. It is almost like having an upside down moral pyramid, one that you can refer to now and then when you have the opportunity to employ a bit of moral outrage.

This may be reductive or even disconcerting to some of us, but there’s an ounce of truth here. I’ve had to pluck out my own thistles this past weekend because of my own upside-down pyramid. I am acutely aware of the sadness that comes with the loss of any human being’s life. All human beings feel this pain often. The problem is that for years the reality of a farmer and his family being killed was somehow removed from me, in a very twisted way.

It was removed from me because while I was convinced that the killing of farmers or any other human being was criminal and out rightly wrong, I felt strongly that my just considerations should lie elsewhere. I was convinced that my awareness should focus on the anger irks me when I think of the poverty, hopelessness and gruesome murders in the townships I have briefly lived in. The daily battles many people have to fight in these forsaken places, sometimes they fight to stay alive.

It made sense to me that while a family not more than 50 - 100 kilometres was being brutally murdered; I had to battle with the harsh realities that I knew of. It made sense because I could relate. I was in not in the wrong. I cared for the murder of the farmer but it was too far removed for me to express genuine concern.

Plucking out my own sow-thistle

My own plucking moment came in my first year at University. Having attended a boy’s school in the barren mining town of Welkom in the Free State I moved to a reality I thought I could relate too, Bloemfontein.  I was placed in a residence (House JBM Hertzog - mind the colonial hang-up) and boy, what a place!

It attracted characters from all around the Platteland and beyond. We had the ‘Brei-crew’ - an epithet we used to refer to people who wrestled their ‘r’ sounds in Afrikaans and English. We also had had the character-colourful Transvalers who seemed to know everything about anything.  But we also had another group of people. They were often hardnosed and tough but good-spirited guys who grew up on the farm, die Plaaseuns. Of course there were other colourful characters but I’ll leave room for you to do the guesswork.

In trying to find my way around this maze of identities, I had an encounter which helped me pluck out my own thistle. A fellow resident and I were having one of those occasional ‘the country is in trouble’ conversations. I told him of a world unknown to him. I shared with him some of my reflections on the nuisance of township life in South Africa and he shared his own fears about the country.

It was clear that we were having one conversation but within it we had competing narratives, each narrative begging to be affirmed and valued.  The conversation had a redemptive moment when he shared a moving account of how his Uncle and his whole immediate family were killed on a farm in the Eastern Free State. Sadness and hurt is difficult to describe but on that day his face told a story I couldn’t overlook.

Competing Narratives tangled in one thread

I realized at that moment that South African reality is littered with competing narratives tangled in one thread. In this tangled thread we find it difficult to recognize the plight of the other. Though we may see it, we somehow dismiss it like the thistles we find in our own gardens. My own pyramid is under review, it will be difficult but it must be done. After reading about another gruesome farm murder of a family in the Free State over this past week, I’m starting to doubt whether this pyramid is of any good use to me.

I am convinced that I can be as equally disconcerted about the dreadful reality of farm murders and still highlight the reality of the living-abattoirs found in the township. Yes, proximity draws us closer to the lived experiences and realities we encounter but sometimes we need to hold ourselves to a different standard.

A number of thistles remain in each of our own figurative gardens, lurking for our attention and waiting to be plucked out. Until then we’re trapped in this ugly garden where each magnolia wants to blossom while the thistles around it are not only ugly but prickly too.

Follow Sibusiso on Twitter @SbuTshabs

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