News / Opinion / Columns

William Saunderson-Meyer
3 minute read
22 Sep 2018
8:30 am

Jaundiced Eye: Rot hollows out SA society

William Saunderson-Meyer

Milliken’s death pulls together in a single event many of the strands of neglect, paralysis, and decay that are eating the heart out of an entire country.

Burman Bush Nature Reserve in the heart of Durban - once a gem of the city, now a neglected, dangerous place. Picture: Facebook

The police have just released South Africa’s annual crime statistics. More than 20 000 people murdered each year, making us one of the most violent societies on earth.

As usual, the media has been saturated with predictable platitudes and much theorising on what could and should be done. Inevitably, the human story becomes buried in the welter of numbers, under the sludge of verbiage.

Sometimes, a single murder may reveal more about the rot that is hollowing out our society than all the wisdom of opining experts. And what happens locally can taint us globally.

Last week’s murder of Simon Milliken, principal double bassist of the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra and a gentle man, is more than just another one of the 57 people who are homicide victims on any average day.

Milliken was killed in a robbery in Durban’s Burman Bush, a small, urban nature reserve that is just a three-minute stroll from the president’s official residence in KwaZulu-Natal.

He was on one of the reserve’s three trails with visiting conductor Perry So from Boston in the US, whose other passion is birdwatching. They were trying to spot the fledglings in a sparrowhawk nest when they were confronted by a robber armed with a gun and a knife.

It was one of those fumbling, bumbling encounters when naive middle-class outrage at being targeted by a criminal goes head to head with an angry young man who has few scruples and even less self-control. The upshot was that Milliken was killed, while So escaped.

The murderer’s actions are reprehensible but not entirely irrational. On the upside, dead men can’t be witnesses and on the downside, the likelihood of being arrested for a stranger-on-stranger crime like this are infinitesimally low.

The problem is not, as the police chiefs often claim, a shortage of officers but rather prevalence of incompetent ones.

In Milliken’s case, the police took an hour to arrive at the scene, by which time it was dark. They did not have powerful torches and failed to venture along the trail. If they had, they would have found Milliken a 10 minutes’ stroll from the main gate, bleeding out but likely still alive.

The following day, the police were again late to start searching. Milliken’s body was found not by the police, but by two early morning walkers.

The lead cop had neither notebook nor pencil. He recorded his sleuthing observations on a page torn from Milliken’s own notebook, using Milliken’s pencil, both obtained by rummaging through the dead man’s belongings.

Police incompetence might have been the coup de grace, but it was the Durban metro that set the stage for Milliken’s death. Like so many local authorities, eThekwini is riddled with indolence, incompetence and indifference.

The reserve has been in decay for decades. Vagrants and illegal immigrants live semipermanently in the bushes. There have been scores of muggings at gunpoint and this is the third murder in four years.

Once upon a time, international travel websites waxed lyrical about Burman Bush’s natural beauty, its prolific birdlife and its rare blue duiker. In recent years, this has switched to stern warnings to stay away because of violent crime.

That shift in international sentiment towards what was a small bit of paradise is emblematic of what is happening, or in danger of happening, to SA across the board.

Milliken’s death pulls together in a single event many of the strands of neglect, paralysis, and decay that are eating the heart out an entire country.

William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer.

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