The earth shrugged this week, unleashing human suffering in Japan that is too immense to quantify. The events in Japan make for mesmerizing television. In the midst of this tragedy are the seeds of novels. Of lovers lost, of loved ones found, of small survivals that will gradually put the magnitude of the earth’s power back in its Pandora’s box.
This natural disaster diverted the world’s attention from the human disaster that is Colonel Gaddafi’s apocalyptic bombing of the Libyan people. There is the David-and-Goliath heroism of jeans-clad boys pitting themselves against the regime’s tanks and warplanes. Wars that cannot be either won or lost (like Vietnam, like Iraq, like Somalia) make for fabulous films. All the scriptwriters need to do is keep the cinematic eye focused on an individual, or a unit under siege, and not ask any questions about the wider political frame.
But in Cape Town this week events of a different scale slipped briefly into view. In a grimy magistrate’s court in Khayalitsha, the sprawling, violence-wracked township that skirts suburban Cape Town, a murder trial was postponed for the thirty third time. It was a postponement and a murder that distils a social malaise that is as hard to cure as it is to write about.
Zoliswa Nkonyana and her friend went for a drink at a shebeen in Khayalitsha on the 6th of May 2006. The few photographs I have seen of Zoliswa show a young woman with a set to her jaw that tells you that she will stand up for herself. Nineteen-year-old Zoliswa lived openly as a lesbian. South Africa has been tainted by virulent irruptions of homophobia. One particularly horrific variant have been what are termed ‘corrective rapes’ of lesbians. Many people assert that Zoliswa was murdered because she was openly gay and because she refused to take shit from a group of thugs. It is an assertion supported by the chillingly targeted attack on this young woman and others like her.
That night Zoliswa, despite taunts she was subjected to, refused to use the men’s toilet at the place she had gone for a drink. A group of men pursued her and knifed her to death in the street. Nine men were charged with Zoliswa’s murder and the attempted murder of her friend and a passerby who tried to intervene.
It was an open and shut case. But five years on and no one has been convicted. One can only conclude that the murder of this teenager was of little consequence to the state institutions charged with ensuring that her murderers get what they deserve. For example, the main state witness, Zoliswa’s friend, was attacked on the day of her murder. She has been threatened during the trial and had to flee the Cape for her own safety. She has not been provided with the support and protection she needs.
There were several other instances of great incompetence that led to more delays. Then on the 15th September last year, the day before the State was supposed to close its case, four of the accused escaped from the holding cell at the Magistrate’s Court. A police sergeant was arrested. And now there has been this most recent delay, some minor issue, that went uncontested by either the prosecutor or by the magistrate who certainly has it in her power to see that justice is done.
The violence meted out to Zoliswa, the incompetence and the corruption in the aftermath of her death, is part of the everyday fabric of South Africa. We live with it, like we live with polluted air. It is a slow poison that kills the spirit as surely as those knives killed that young woman.
But writing about violence against women is difficult because misogyny, like homophobia, has no narrative value. Both are simply brutal and stupid. Brutality and stupidity don’t make for much of a plot. In a novel, however, there are ways of turning the hunted into the hunter. Of turning the tables on murderers, on slack cops, on inept prosecutors and dithering magistrates. Of giving people armchair satisfaction at least.
Zoliswa Nkonyana murder put our criminal justice system to the test. It has failed dismally. You would never get away with this in fiction.