No cin­e­matic es­cape from Cape Flats life

A new film forces us to ex­am­ine the back­ground to crimes as­so­ci­ated with poverty and de­pri­va­tion

Mail & Guardian - - Comment Analysis - Euse­bius McKaiser

Mrs Pakkies first heard the word “rape” on the ra­dio, when she was 26 years old, even though she had been raped since she was a four-year-old girl called Ellen.

The many men who raped her in­cluded strangers, rel­a­tives and some of her mother’s boyfriends.

Her fam­ily lived un­der con­di­tions of poverty on the Cape Flats. This is a com­mu­nity that the colo­nial and apartheid states had thor­oughly bru­talised. It is also a com­mu­nity that knows the vi­o­lent con­ti­nu­ities be­tween apartheid South Africa and the neo­colo­nial, post-apartheid South Africa only too well.

Even af­ter she had be­come an adult and tried to carve out a life as a mar­ried woman in Laven­der Hill, men con­tin­ued to prey on Mrs Pakkies. She was raped again. She fell preg­nant and man­aged to love her son born of this heinous crime.

She pro­tected Abie from the truth of his vi­o­lent ori­gins un­til a drunk rel­a­tive hurled it at the young man. (This ca­sual mi­cro-ag­gres­sion on the part of a rel­a­tive is a form of psy­cho­log­i­cal vi­o­lence that is often as preva­lent as phys­i­cal as­sault.)

Ellen did her best for her beloved son. But she was a mother, not a ma­gi­cian. She could not shield him from the bul­ly­ing and taunt­ing of chil­dren at school that fol­lowed the gos­sip about his con­cep­tion.

She could also not guar­an­tee that he would be spared the con­se­quences of grow­ing up in a grossly de­prived, drug-in­fested neigh­bour­hood. It was al­most in­evitable that he would suc­cumb to the evil drug that is tik. Once he be­came ad­dicted to this sub­stance, the prospect of death re­mained an ever-present threat. In fact, Abie died twice.

He “died” the first time, from tik ad­dic­tion. He died a sec­ond time when Ellen, with eerie calm, tied him up while he was asleep and stran­gled him.

In the film Ellen: Die Sto­rie van Ellen Pakkies, there is a scene when the now ha­bit­ual crim­i­nal and drug ad­dict Abie at­tacks his mother with a huge kitchen knife. Min­utes af­ter his un­con­trol­lable, vi­o­lent fit of rage ends, he breaks down and cries in­con­solably.

In a rare mo­ment of lu­cid­ity, he be­comes an in­no­cent lit­tle boy again, plead­ing with his mother to for­give him; say­ing it was not him who at­tacked her. It is then that he grasps that his true self has been killed by tik.

Of course, the mon­ster un­der the spell of tik re-emerges time and again to ter­rorise lit­tle Abie’s ghost and his mother.

Abie was no match for the drug. Vi­o­lence and crim­i­nal­ity fol­lowed in his wake with him steal­ing goods from the fam­ily home, at­tempt­ing to burn down the house, ped­dling drugs, break­ing into cars and other acts all aimed at get­ting cash for the next binge.

The al­ter­na­tive was to ex­pe­ri­ence with­drawal symp­toms so hor­rific that, as I watched a scene show­ing Abie ex­pe­ri­enc­ing them, I wished I could jump into the screen and give him his next fix.

The drug, quite lit­er­ally, took Abie away from Ellen. He was a mon­ster when he was high. He was a mon­ster when he was not high.

I’ve never cried as much while watch­ing a film. I was also tempted sev­eral times to walk out be­cause the com­pelling por­trayal of what had hap­pened felt too real to count as cin­e­matic es­cape.

In­deed, it was and is an all-too-real story in our coun­try.

His mother had been bru­talised since she was a child. The men who raped her were se­cure in the knowl­edge that they would get away with their vi­o­lence — rapists are pro­tected by a con­spir­acy of si­lence in fam­i­lies and neigh­bour­hoods.

They also ben­e­fit from a crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem that is friendly to them and un­friendly to­ward sur­vivors.

There were many trig­gers of mem­ory for me while watch­ing this film, based on a true story.

It re­minded me of a woman from a very re­spected fam­ily in the work­ing-class com­mu­nity I grew up in. Her hus­band was well loved and had been in the army with my fa­ther. He was a beau­ti­ful soul when sober but was prone to abuse when drunk. Like Mrs Pakkies, this woman had en­dured decades of abuse and it all be­came too much for her. She killed him one night in a fit of des­per­a­tion.

In law, Mrs Pakkies — and the aunt in my com­mu­nity — are deemed mur­der­ers. But the law is a blunt in­stru­ment. It doesn’t al­ways care for the bi­og­ra­phy that pre­cedes a mur­der­ous act.

I could hear the em­pa­thetic sobs in the cin­ema dur­ing the fi­nal scene of Ellen; when the court recog­nised that Mrs Pakkies had been failed by the state and by her com­mu­nity. For once, law and jus­tice co­in­cided.

Mrs Pakkies had done ev­ery­thing to seek help for her boy. Wher­ever she turned — the lo­cal clinic, the re­hab cen­tre, the po­lice, the courts — the re­sult was not pro­duc­tive, restora­tive or heal­ing. The struc­tural con­di­tions of her life re­mained un­touched.

The poor are often failed by the state. Many peo­ple, who do crim­i­nal wrong be­cause of the ef­fect ex­treme trauma has had on them, are judged most harshly by the same sys­tem that has failed to pro­tect them from the so­cial con­di­tions that cause such trauma.

Luck­ily for Mrs Pakkies, the ju­di­cial of­fi­cer who ad­ju­di­cated her case showed her mercy.

She is a self-con­fessed mur­derer but she is also a vic­tim, just like her son was.

The moral of

Ellen

is not that we should aban­don crim­i­nal law cases. So­ci­ety couldn’t func­tion if we let each other off the hook. But lev­els of crim­i­nal­ity in our so­ci­ety will not be re­duced if we never ask why and how peo­ple be­come mon­sters un­recog­nis­able even to them­selves.

We need to do bet­ter. The sto­ries of life on the Cape Flats also chal­lenge us to self-ex­am­ine class and race prej­u­dices we have about peo­ple in com­mu­ni­ties not deemed po­lit­i­cally im­por­tant enough to grab na­tional at­ten­tion.

For ex­am­ple, when a wealthy mother stran­gles her chil­dren, we rush to put psy­chol­ogy ex­perts on tele­vi­sion to ex­plain her be­hav­iour. We seek rea­sons to elu­ci­date her ab­hor­rent ac­tions that we in­stinc­tively char­ac­terise as un­nat­u­ral and surely out of char­ac­ter.

When poor or work­ing-class moth­ers lose the plot, we mostly con­demn them be­fore — if at all — we try to un­der­stand them.

These class prej­u­dices are in­vari­ably racialised in our con­text, and not only along the fa­mil­iar black and white lines. Coloured boys and men are pathol­o­gised in ways that feed off some of the cru­ellest and crud­est stereo­types about the coloured pop­u­la­tion.

We also crim­i­nalise poor and work­ing-class drug ad­dicts. A wealthy teenager who mur­ders his fam­ily while high on drugs makes us yearn for com­pre­hen­sion. In the case of Abie Pakkies, how­ever, one does not au­to­mat­i­cally ask why and how he could have turned on his mother. We seem to re­serve most of our sym­pa­thy for peo­ple on the cushy side of the in­equal­ity di­vide.

This is why the film Ellen is one of the most im­por­tant South African films in re­cent years. It does jus­tice to the com­plex truth of life in Laven­der Hill.

If only our con­tact with peo­ple on the other side of the tracks did not be­gin and end with a trip to the cin­ema.

I have a nephew I worry about. His im­age kept flash­ing through my head as I watched this film. He has flirted with drugs since he was a child. He is hardly an adult and he has al­ready been in prison sev­eral times.

My nephew, just like Abie, is both a vic­tim of a fam­ily and a com­mu­nity that let him down, my­self in­cluded, and he is al­ready a per­pe­tra­tor of wrong­do­ing.

I, and we, need to do more than leave the cin­ema drenched in tears.

Lev­els of crim­i­nal­ity in our so­ci­ety will not be re­duced if we never ask why and how peo­ple be­come mon­sters

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