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Two months ago a woman I have known all my life was hacked to death in her garden. Ann was seventy-two, a retired schoolteacher. A gentle woman with a soft, enveloping body. She was a mother, and a grandmother. My father was best man at their wedding.

They spent every Christmas with us on the farm, us children watching in delight as the adults got tipsy and told the same jokes and sang the same songs. Each year we exchanged gifts. I have some of them still. She was an invisible stitch in the fabric if my childhood.

This is how I picture it.

In the ritual of so many South African households, she would have taken a cup of tea and a sandwich out at mid-morning.

I ask some questions.

That day her husband went to work. He came home for lunch but no food was cooked. He went to look for her. He found her outside. She had been hacked to death. There was no sign of the gardener.

The police came. The house was searched. A firearm was missing. Two days later the gardener was arrested with the gun in his possession.

I ask some more questions. There is only this to tell. There had been words between the gardener and his employers.

I try to make sense of her death, to find an explanation for the brutal slaying of an old lady.

I have been in that garden.

The lawn is mowed, the edges trimmed, the dahlias staked, the white daisies bob in the summer breeze. It is neat, clipped, suburban, like countless others spread through the suburbs of South Africa.

On this day something tripped the fuse that runs through the dynamics of class and race and gender that hold South Africa in a deadly grip.

But what does it mean?

It is something that Randolph Roth, the author of a fascinating book called AMERICAN HOMICIDE, has addressed. He points out in his preface something that South Africans, citizens of one of the most murderous countries on earth, are all to familiar with.

‘The blunt truth,’ writes Roth, ‘is that homicide is hard to deter even under the best circumstances.’

His book presents analysis of the high homicide rates in the United States. It is, after all, statistically the most murderous of all the advanced democracies.

The meaning of murder, and its history, is as absorbing a subject in South Africa as it is in the United States. There are differences, of course, but the rates of murder are arresting in both countries. The questions raised by Roth could usefully be asked of South Africa.

‘What,’ asks Roth, ‘causes men to be so alienated that they can kill passersby for money or sex? What causes men to view every encounter with another man as having the potential to be a life-and-death struggle for supremacy or self-preservation?’

Because it does not happen everywhere. In most places in the world a woman and a gardener would resolve a disagreement about pay or working hours or tasks to be done by talking to each other.

‘The predisposition to violence is not rooted in objective social conditions,’ argues Roth. ‘Men who are poor, oppressed, or unemployed can be disposed to violence in one historical situation and to nonviolence in another. The same is true of men who have every advantage.’

So where does it lie then?

‘The predisposition to violence is rooted in feelings and beliefs, and the key to explaining it lies in charting the historical fluctuations in unrelated-adult homicide rates and in identifying both the feelings and beliefs that accompanied those fluctuations and the circumstances that fostered changes in them.’

Roth makes a cogent and complex argument for his case, but there was one belief that he emphasized that correlated with a drop in murder rates. That is ‘the belief that the social hierarchy is legitimate, that one’s position in society is or can be satisfactory and that one can command the respect of others without resorting to violence.

A belief was nowhere to be found on that sunny morning when a young man killed a defenceless old woman.

Such murders are not uncommon here, but they are hard to read. Why does a simple dispute over money or time off or tasks not completed result so frequently in violence?

It is not difficult to understand, given South Africa’s history, why these tranquil-looking places came to be the place where violence and fear and rage have lodged themselves. But one needs to stretch one’s mind and one’s heart to think of ways in which this breach in the social order can be healed.

[AMERICAN HOMICIDE Randolph Roth, The Belknap Press Of Harvard University Press Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England 2009]

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