Wednesday, January 17, 2007
The Price of Black Life
In a South African town called Thabazimbi a 39 year old white farmer, Marchel Nel, testified in court that he shot and killed 11-year-old Sello Pete after mistaking him for a dog. "I didn't do it on purpose," was his defense and the court agreed.
Nel has just been found guilty of culpable homicide and fined R20 000 or five years in prison.
According to Senior prosecutor Renier van Rooyen, half of the fine and the jail term are suspended for five years. This means that Nel won't spend a day in jail as long as he can come up with R10 000 (about $1385).
This is South Africa in 2007.
During the trial Nel claimed that he immediately applied mouth-to-mouth resuscitation after realizing that Sello Pete was not a dog. He then rushed his victim to a hospital.
Nel's words were obviously offered to demonstrate to the court that he was not above trying to revive the Black child with his mouth.
The case has drawn hostile anger from the Black community where Sello Pete came from. The prosecution asked Nel if he realized that folks were furious with him. He replied that "I believe in my heart the Lord will look after me."
His reply illustrates the fanatical belief that white Afrikaner identity is fused to manifest destiny. God in Nel's mind would be more likely to see that he is cared for while the victim is just left dead.
I am sickened by this case. On the one hand it demonstrates the worthlessness of Black life in the white imagination. So worthless too is the pain and suffering in this case that the parents of the victim are not even mentioned in any of the news reports I have read.
This case also stirs up memories of many other instances where white farmers have killed Black people on their farms.
About the same time that Nel appeared in court another white farmer, Theunis Steyn, was accused of killing a young male, Teshepiso Moremi. The 18 year old victim in this case died when Steyn drove his car over his body.
What exactly is the value of Black life in the post-apartheid era? Would this story be so 'invisible' if a Black man had perpetrated the same crime on a white child? Will President Mbeki address the nation tonight and decry the racism that propels people like Nel? And what about the white apologists who would crucify me for having the audacity to question whiteness in an 'obvious' case of mistaken identity?
I am reminded that Robert Sobukwe once remarked that many white people care more about their dogs than they do about Black life. Some protestors who gathered outside of Nel's earlier bail hearing seemed to agree with Sobukwe. It was reported that protesters held placards that read: "Whites are friends of dogs, they can't kill dogs, they kill Africans" and another read "We are Africans, not dogs."
Many white South Africans would loathe any insinuation that they care more about dogs than Black children like Sello Pete. They would also be quick to point out how they are victimized for being white in South Africa. "All the jobs are for Blacks" or "Blacks are killing whites daily in robberies" and of course "this country has been ruined by Black corruption" are often repeated laments.
Few, if any, will spend time honestly interrogating apartheid and taking responsibility for their role in its horrors. In fact, it is hard to find a white person honest enough to admit that they supported apartheid. Curiously, the electorate that kept apartheid in power for five decades mysteriously disappeared.
While living in Saldanha I used to listed to a call-in radio show on Cape Talk/702. Each night there would be mostly white callers complaining about their lot in South Africa. Not too many of these callers would even pay a second thought to the brutality that apartheid caused. Rather, the refrain that "we must move on and not dwell on the past" was offered as sage advise for liberal progress.
If Sello Pete's demise is even discussed around white dinner tables tonight it will be pointed out that Nel was justly tried in a court of law. Not a word will be wasted on the fact that the judicial system is a living and breathing apartheid relic.
Nothing will be said about the manner in which the verdict supports the assumption that Black life is worth way less than white life. Instead, the farmer will be seen as a foolhardy individual who acted out of the mistaken belief that an 11 year old Black child looked like a dog.
For some English speaking whites he may even be described as a "dumb Afrikaner" but certainly not a racist. To describe Nel as a racist would mean that the collective in-bred superiority complex of whiteness would be under scrutiny.
But don't be misled. White South Africa is accustomed to trodding on Black lives even though you are unlikely to meet any guilty perpetrators. Instead, the modus operandi in white post-apartheid South Africa is to live in absolute denial.
The kind of denial that proclaims: "Ag shame man but let bygones be bygones hey ... what is the use to dwell on the past when we need investment and jobs to pull this country right?" As twisted as this logic may sound, it is exactly the kind of thinking that the ruling ANC has enabled with its market-driven, trickle-down, policies.
As for Nel, his white skin and privilege brought him a R20 000 suspended fine for killing an innocent child. Whether he meant to kill Sello Pete or not is not the most salient issue to be considered now. Racism is about power. Power delivers verdicts that save white people from having to bear the responsibility of their inhumane discrimination.
That Nel could equate the life of a Black child and a dog is only the beginning.
And we are far from free ....
... even though he is rotting in his grave.