On 9 July 2008, I was watching a reality show about drug addicts when the phone rang. It was my sister, and I was excited to hear from her since we hadn’t chatted in a while. Her voice was shaking.
“Mashie, Daddy’s been shot”.
My first thought was, OK, no problem, get him to the hospital and fix this. I don’t know what I said to my sister, but her response was,
“It’s too late, he’s dead”.
I thought she was mistaken, how could my Dad be dead? I asked her if she was sure, and then I started screaming at the top of my voice “No, please God No”. Over and over again. My husband came out of the study looking confused. I pulled myself together, realising this call was hard enough for my sister to have to make without me destroying her eardrum at the same time. At some point my brother in law got on the phone to explain what had happened.
My parents had been out for dinner on a freezing cold night in winter. They came home, and my mother went inside the house to switch off the alarm, so that my Dad could drive the car into the garage for the night. She let the dog out and suddenly heard gunshots like cannons going off. She walked to the front door to see what was going on, and Dad was walking towards her. He said “Call the cops, I’ve been shot”. There are four steps going up to the front door and he collapsed on those stairs.
She called my sister who lived nearby, then the flying squad, and they talked her through what to do. Find the wound. She searched relentlessly on his body, there was no blood. Eventually she lifted his shirt and found a tiny entry wound in his abdomen. She didn’t want to leave his side, but they told her to get towels so she did. She told him she loved him, but he was unconscious. He had a gun in his hand, one that he had carried with him for self defence for many years. That might sound a bit strange, but anyone who has lived in South Africa in the last 10 years will not find that unusual. My brother in law arrived before the ambulances, my sister was at home with her child waiting for a friend to come and look after her.
What followed was what follows any crime scene. The police arrived. Counsellors arrived. The paramedics arrived. They declared him dead, but when my mother begged them, they attempted to resuscitate him for another 45 minutes. Phonecalls were made by my sister to myself (in Cape Town) and another sister in London.
I had to phone my family, my Dad’s brother in the Netherlands. How do you tell someone his brother has been shot? I phoned my brother in law another 4 or 5 times, asking him to tell me what happened. I couldn’t accept it as true. I spoke to my sister in London and phoned some friends of hers to make sure someone went to be with her. I emailed work to say I wouldn’t be in the next day, my father had been murdered. I emailed some friends to tell them, a bit of a strange thing to do in hindsight, but I felt like people needed to hear it from me and not the newspaper. My husband booked the flights and phoned some friends to take us to the airport to catch the 6 am flight.
I packed a bag, wondering what to pack – I was going to my father’s funeral. My Daddy. And eventually I got into bed. No tears, just absolute numb shock. I think in my mind I was bargaining with the universe, thinking, how about this isn’t true and we all wake up tomorrow and carry on with our lives? Every few minutes, a shockwave would go through my heart, a little possibility that maybe it was true. And then I would bargain again in my mind. Maybe once I get to JHB, I can sort this thing out, fix it and make it go away, and then he’ll be fine? I lay awake, staring at the same spot on the wall for 2 hours. Then I got an sms from my mom, asking if I was awake.
I went into the other room and phoned her. It had been impossible to speak to her earlier, she was too busy giving statements to the police. She was at my sister’s house, lying awake and in shock, dry shock, no tears. She told me the story. The story is a strange thing. It gets repeated many, many times, especially in the first few days. It’s something that people need to hear many times in order to believe it, and it’s something that we also must tell many times in order to come to terms with it.
After chatting for a while, we both went back to bed. Then after a few more hours of staring at the wall, it was time to get up, get dressed, and fly to JHB. I remember it was such a beautiful day, and we flew over the mountains which had snow on them (very unusual for South Africa). And I thought of all the other people on the plane, and how ordinary their day was. And my husband started to cry, and I comforted him. And when we got to the airport, my tall Dad wasn’t in the crowd of people in the arrival lounge, with his large welcome grin, as he usually was. Another nail in the coffin of my reality.
In the days that followed, people arrived from overseas, and we went through the motions. Choosing a coffin. Identifying the body in the mortuary – an image that will never leave my mind. Funeral speeches. Detectives. Life Insurance – they didn’t want to pay out until my mother was ruled out as a suspect (apparently around 2 murders a day in South Africa are related to life insurance). The general consensus (we hired a private investigator) was that they had been waiting for my parents to arrive home, unlock the front door, and switch off the alarm, which is linked to an armed response. The most popular way of robbing people nowadays in South Africa is by holding them up while they are in their homes, so that they can show you where their valuables are stashed, and also have no way of getting help. These robberies can last up to 8 hours, during which family members are often raped and brutally murdered. But they hadn’t banked on the fact that my Dad was armed, and prepared to fight back. And every detective we dealt with told us that it’s very likely that he saved my mother’s life.Picking up the pieces