It is a little over two weeks since the rape and murder of Maties student Hannah Cornelius. The specifics of the event have been more than sufficiently covered by the press, and I really see no point in unpacking the horrible details of this atrocious crime again. Being close to people who used to know Miss Cornelius, I also did not feel like dragging a soapbox unto her grave in order to make a point about the terrible hazards faced not only by young women in Stellenbosch, but everybody in our society. The time is perhaps now right to address the issues that require such addressing, and hopefully I can persuade enough people to think sufficiently differently about their personal safety and maybe, just maybe, a life or two can be saved in the process.
The Anatomy of a Crisis
What happened to Miss Cornelius was, sadly, not a unique event in the South African context. From April 2015 until March 2016 a total of 18 673 murders were committed, constituting a 4,9% increase from the previous period. Of course these statistics obfuscate about as much as they reveal, considering that when a police officer or a citizen kills a criminal in legitimate private defence, it would be recorded as an intentional homicide during the period it occurs in. But this is a topic for another day. The 2015/16 period also saw a total of 51 895 recorded sexual offences. Even though this statistic does not explicitly separate the amount of reported rapes, other sources have placed South Africa as having the highest recorded incidence of rape in the world.
What is unequivocally clear is that South African women are at high risk of being raped and murdered. It is an incontestable fact, and unfortunately the reality of the situation is highly unlikely to improve in the near future.
The response options available to South Africans are unfortunately not reassuring. The SA Police Service is currently experiencing budget cuts which will see it shed around 3000 personnel over the next three years, and the organisation is plagued by problems that affect it as a whole: from a lack of leadership, to insufficient training of its officers, to a lack of equipment and ammunition, and unserviceable vehicles. Considering how stretched its resources are, it is not surprising that the average reaction time of the SAPS to a callout during the 2015/16 year was 18 minutes and 23 seconds.
That is an awfully long time to be at the mercy of violent criminals, and it is not unfairly presumptuous to conclude that waiting for the police to come and save you is not a sensible option. There frankly are not enough police officers to act as the personal bodyguards of each and every citizen, and there never will be. This leaves only one other feasible response option: take responsibility for your own safety.
You are the First Responder to your Personal Crime Scene
You are the first responder to your personal crime scene. There is no different way of putting this. You will always be the first person to be affected when a criminal attack is launched against you. Your choices and actions during the seconds following the initiation of such an attack can determine whether you live or die, and no other person can make those decisions and perform those reactions on your behalf. In the event that you are trained and equipped to react appropriately, your chances of survival increase markedly.
There are ample examples of ordinary South African citizens, men and women, prevailing over their assailants and saving lives in the process…sometimes their own, sometimes the lives of other innocents. I have written on this topic extensively in the past (see here, here, and here…I highly recommend you come back and read these), and the contemporary supporting evidence keeps piling up on a daily basis. A trained, competent, and confident citizen with a firearm is an incredibly hard target for any criminal to hit.
This is a view shared by the previous Secretary General of Interpol, Ronald Noble, and following the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi during September 2013 he said as much: “Societies have to think about how they’re going to approach the problem. One is to say we want an armed citizenry; you can see the reason for that… What I’m saying is it makes police around the world question their views on gun control. It makes citizens question their views on gun control.”
Yet many people do not think this way. They spend each day trying not to contemplate the horrible things that plague our society, and like a swallow flying through a hailstorm they hope that today it will not be their turn to be the victim of senseless violence. Sometimes they get lucky. Sometimes they do not. And some of those sometimes they end up in a morgue.
Perhaps this is the reason why many people harbour distrustful feelings towards firearms and those who own them. Seeing other people who are prepared for violent criminal encounters and who choose to shoulder the responsibilities of being legally armed citizens remind them that the dark and violent side of society exists. It forces them to contemplate things that frighten and horrify them, and to take cognisance of the possibility that these things can happen to them and people they deeply care about. Understandably this causes them immense distress, and closes their minds to confronting the monster that waits in the dark.
But things are beginning to change.
Women are Taking Control
With several examples of extreme violence against women being publicised lately, the responses have been as expected: horror, sadness, anger, and outrage. However, as opposed to the usual narratives of the government being expected to do something about the problem, women are instead opting to explore their options with regards to protecting themselves.
In a column written by Monica Laganparsad, the Deputy News Editor of News24, titled Dear women of SA: We are on our own, she emphasises that women are ”on our own. Nobody is coming to protect us from being murdered, burnt and raped. Politicians are hypocrites who only pitch up for the photo opportunity.” She continues on by stating the practical difficulties of relying on others for your protection, “our husbands, fathers and brothers can’t protect us either, not because they won’t, but because they can’t.” In conclusion, she ends the column with an absolute knock-out blow to the victim-mentality: “We have to protect ourselves. We need to arms ourselves with weapons instead of lipstick. We need to teach our daughters to become warriors instead of princesses. Cancel the ballet lessons and send your daughters to karate instead.”
A separate article, titled Why I’m thinking of getting a gun, written by the Huffington Post South Africa’s Partner Studio Editor Janine Jellars, directly confronts the reality of the situation: “63 women have been murdered in 30 days in Gauteng. I think we are entitled to be scared and I’m definitely scared to the point where I want to look for means to protect myself. There is no ‘safe space’ in Gauteng…Becoming a recluse and locking yourself in your home doesn’t guarantee your safety either.” From the rest of the text it is evidently clear that Ms. Jellars perfectly understands that a firearm in trained hands is an unparalleled equaliser: it gives a 45kg woman the ability to effectively fend-off an attack from a man more than twice her size.
Shifting the Mindset
I applaud Mses. Laganparsad and Jellars for bravely going against the dominating narrative current, and grabbing the proverbial bull by the horns. It is my personal hope that if the truth is spoken often enough and eloquently enough, it will penetrate through the veil which is preventing South Africans from seeing the reality of the situation. This in turn will cause the mindset of people to change, and for them to take practical and realistic steps to safeguard themselves. And hopefully it also causes more people to think differently about firearms as part of their self-defence toolbox.
Firearms have never been the villain of this story: they are neutral, inanimate objects. The wielder determines whether the gun is used for good or for evil, and firearms in the hands of good people have saved countless lives.
We all have the Right to Life as enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the South African Constitution. But without the capacity to defend that Right to Life, it becomes nothing more than pretty words on a piece of paper.