A strange thing happened the other day

Close your eyes and imagine this:

Today is going to hit around 28 degrees, but humidity will make it feel much worse: there’s vital training to be done, so you set the alarm for 3am to catch a small window of cool stillness. By 3.15 you’re heading out into the fresh pre-dawn, and the only sounds are your tyres and the chirps of crickets and frogs.

Maybe you’re thinking about the distance you need to do today, or you’re just enjoying the ride, but there’s no way you could ever be thinking about what was going to happen next. When a group of men erupt from the bush and pull you off your bike, there’s that eternal second of blank shock, then your cortex sparks “SURVIVAL!!!” and you think: robbery! Fighting as they wrestle you to the ground, you bargain: take this, take that – take everything, but their only response is to pin you down. And then you realise…one of them is holding a saw.

I can’t begin to write about what happens next; I can’t allow my mind to go there for my own sake. Within the parameters of my headspace there are probably sleeping areas of grey/white matter that could visualise sawing off limbs for gain, but I choose not to wake them. Let’s just switch to the news story:

“Several attackers pulled Gwala off his bike as he cycled up a steep hill and sawed into his right calf, damaging muscle, nerves and bone, according to Jackson, who spoke by phone to the triathlete about the ordeal. The attackers missed a main artery and surgeons are confident they can save the leg, Jackson said. The attackers also started sawing into Gwala’s left leg before fleeing, enabling the athlete to crawl to a road and flag down a passing car to take him to a hospital.

The grisly attack has alarmed athletes in Durban who train early in the morning, when few people are on the roads. There was no immediate explanation for why Gwala was targeted and Jackson said the athlete had been attacked despite offering his cell phone, wallet and bicycle to the assailants. “I have never heard of any enemies that he may have,” Jackson said. “He is a wonderful ambassador for the sport.” 

Gwala overcame drug and alcohol addictions and went on to represent South Africa at international competitions in Chicago in 2015 and in the Netherlands last year, Jackson said.

South Africa’s deputy sports minister, Gert Oosthuizen, described the attack on the “star athlete” as “totally unacceptable” and said police are investigating.” Full story here.

 Why this story?

In a time when we read about wives being discovered in the burnt-out boots of their cars and thousands of missing children, why focus on one isolated horror that played itself out on a lonely stretch of road? Because it’s more than itself. There’s more to what happened here than just jealousy or profit (motives put forward by shocked readers) – the crime itself is chillingly important because here’s another moment when SA finds the abyss looking straight back into us.

You see, he survived

We aren’t just finding a body at the side of the road with a few limbs missing (something that happens more often that you or I might think), they fled and he managed to crawl to a road. Now the story’s out and we’re forced to ask hideous questions like:

  • who would use the limbs of a triathlete
  • who pays for limbs
  • what purpose do they serve
  • who do you hire to cut limbs off of people
  • are you doing this for yourself, or is this some grisly service you perform for others
  • in which case, who, and why?

All extremely uncomfortable issues to face, but here’s a young man who put addiction behind him to forge a new life of freedom for himself, so how can we look away? Put the obvious insanity of the crime itself aside for a moment, what about the message being sent to any South African who decides to work on a life of freedom: if you even start to succeed, we’ll cut you down? No matter how this story ends, taking a saw to someone’s legs means introspection-time.

I haven’t finished this yet

This is a raw and clunky first draft that I’ll be working through, and it may turn into something else as I go, but it’s going up today because it has to be said, the questions have to be triggered. For now, I end with this:

Watching people in high places look shocked this week as their crazy actions were being questioned (think Home Affairs) brought a funny family story to mind: my Gran comes into her bedroom to find my Dad, aged 3, sitting amongst her trashed cosmetics and completely covered in face-cream! The weird part is that he doesn’t jump up in guilt; instead he pulls funny faces at her and then capers silently around the room! Finally she asks the burning question: “Michael, WHAT are you doing?!” He freezes and replies: “Can you see me?”

At his feet lies the empty jar of Pond’s Vanishing Cream..

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