The Razor Wire’s Edge


Johannesburg, South Africa— The rock never fell, although the locals said that it was bad luck and that one day it would. “The African people thought we were crazy,” the woman, let’s call her Karen Pretorius, is saying. “You didn’t know when the rock would fall over. But that was why we bought the house.” The speaker herself is also African, of course, but not black: Afrikaans. She belongs to the former oppressor group, she has no need to remind you— although she might add, in her low voice, that her people have historically been much oppressed: interned in concentration camps by the British during the Boer War, the women and children killed, etc. The right side of her face twitches involuntarily when she talks; her voice has a tendency to trail off.

Karen and her late husband, Martin, bought the house in a posh Johannesburg suburb expressly for the cantilevered rock on the kopje. The purchase was made 10 years ago, before Mr. Mandela’s miracle, the big change. The lot was pie shaped and tucked beneath the outcrop that put her so clearly in mind of Henry Moore sculpture: ominous, monumental, dramatic in tension. When the time came to erect a perimeter wall and security fences, there were problems created by the boulder. Its picturesque effect was compromised by the wall, surmounted by coils of razor wire and the apparatus to electrify them. In the end, they paid a lot of money for a piece of land behind the hill in order to inch the fence back and preserve the view. You could see the rock especially well from the terrace, which was reached through the sliding glass doors of the den.

It was in that den last March that Martin was shot by intruders. He was 52 when he died, and had been working as an investment banker at the $35 billion mining conglomerate, Anglo American Corporation. Driving home from work in a leased BMW, Martin was hijacked by two of six attackers, who forced him at gunpoint to open the security gate and punch in the house’s electric security code. The other four walked in casually from the road. Once inside, they taped Martin’s mouth, trussed him with wire, then went to Karen’s bedroom, tied and beat her and ransacked the house for electric equipment and guns. They stole Karen’s Rolex, her gold earrings and also her wedding band. As she tells the
story, Karen rubs her knuckle and indicates large bruised areas on her skull and biceps where she was kicked repeatedly. She feels lucky she
wasn’t raped, she says. Last year more than 45,000 South African women were. “But it isn’t the thing itself, you know. It’s the AIDS.”

The intruders dragged her to the garage by the hair and forced her to show them how to disable the alarm; finding a gas can, they doused her as an afterthought. Yet for some reason they didn’t ignite the fuel. Instead they returned to the den and shot Martin point-blank. “I don’t know why they had to shoot him,” she tells a visitor. “He told them to take everything. But they kept looking for guns.” Unusually for a white family in this elaborately fortified city, hers didn’t happen to keep any weapons at home. “That made them very angry.”

The intruders triggered the armed security response anyway when they stole the car, which they abandoned some blocks away. It took 20 minutes for Karen to wriggle to the driveway. By then the security police had arrived on the scene. The coroner later said Martin died from loss of blood.

When ANC party president-elect Thabo Mbeki is inaugurated in a $7.7 million ceremony this Wednesday, it’s widely hoped that he’ll sidestep political infighting and meet the country’s new horrors head on. A grotesque disparity in employment rates (4 percent unemployment for whites, and, depending upon the source, as much as 60 percent unemployment for blacks) cannot be divorced from the fact that— in the five years since South Africa rewrote its constitution— more than 100,000 people here have died violent deaths. Although South Africa currently fields world-level teams in both rugby and
cricket, killing is truly the new national sport.

Bloodiness has always marked the country. Before 1994, most of the killings were either
political or confined to the segregated townships. Now that apartheid has been officially dismantled, another version of it arises in still segregated and increasingly fortified inner cities. As South African architectural theorist Lindsay Bremner points out, “One of the most devastating and ineradicable traces of apartheid will be its planning of the city.” You can see this in downtown Johannesburg’s abandoned office buildings, in its borderline districts overtaken by squatters and immigrant foreign nationals, and in the massive suburban shopping malls where guards stand sentry and individual shoppers are often assigned armed escorts. The spatial replication of a dismantled and abhorrent social policy has produced an atmosphere of dread.

Over the course of a 10-day trip to the country, a visitor encountered no fewer than three people whose family members had recently been murdered. One man’s father was knifed in his backyard. A woman’s brother was caught in drive-by crossfire while on a highway outside the Cape Town flats. There was the husband of the woman mentioned above.

“Jobs, peace, and freedom,” was the ANC slogan during the historic 1994 elections. According to a study by the New York­based nonprofit, Shared Interest, jobs in government and registered business in the private sector declined by 500,000 during the first five years of the new South Africa. And seven white-held corporate groups continued to account for over two-thirds of all the money invested on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. A modestly estimated 2.6 million South Africans, says Shared Interest, are now self-employed in an improvised “informal sector.” But of course there is another sector that you might call subinformal. And that accounts for many millions more.

Among those numbers you would include Sunshine Mahumane, a housekeeper for the woman whose husband bled to death on the family’s Persian rug. A cornerstone of the ANC’s 1999 platform was minimum wages for domestic workers, who earn an average of 500 to 700 rands a month. Now the ANC wants to raise this figure to 1500, which will effectively “lead to just a huge surge in putting people out of work,” according to Geoff March, a businessman based in the Northern Province town of White River. To hear March tell it, domestics still have the best employment deal available in sub-Saharan Africa; after all, he explains, his own maid, while paid a wage well below ANC proposals, still “gets her own room and bath, a 10-kilo bag of meal every month, two-and-a-half kilos of red meat, a box of chicken parts, a box of tea, loo paper, a box of laundry soap,” and permission to use the family laundry facilities to do her own wash. “She’s really more of a friend, or part of the family, you might even call it,” says March of a 63-year-old woman with meager savings and no retirement plan. Sunshine Mahumane, too, was “like family” to Karen and Martin Pretorius. After the murder, however, Karen sold the house and filed papers for emigration to Australia. She informed Sunshine Mahumane that she’ll have to find a new job, a new family, a new home.