"Faith is the daring of the soul to go further than it can see." -Elle Botha's kitchen refrigerator magnet
"We did not travel this road to become a nation of hijackers. We did not travel this road to become a nation of women and child abusers. We did not travel this road to become corrupt."
-Desmond Tutu on post-apartheid South Africa. At Walter Sisulu's funeral, Orlando Stadium, Soweto. May 17, 2003
She was a skydiver. On Sunday, June 22nd, 2003, Elna Botha of Melville, Johannesurg, struggled to open her reserve parachute until about 100 feet above the ground. She hit the ground very hard and died on impact. Elle was one of my best friends. I was standing on the ground looking up at the sky when it happened. I saw her cut away her malfunctioning main parachute, and watched that canopy as it drifted down. When I looked back up for the standard white reserve, the sky was empty.
Three people went to the scene where she died. Eric, the Chief Instructor, and Deon, the Duty Instructor, were required to be there. I was there on behalf of a third instructor who was several beers to the wind within five minutes of the incident. I cannot describe what I saw, and even if I could I wouldn't want to share it. What I witnessed was the naked truth of human fragility, and the truth of that particular time and place belongs only to the three of us who were there. Late afternoon sun glowed through opaque clouds on the horizon. The wind had died and the air was still. The ground was as solid as it has always been: without remorse, uncaring, beyond moralizing.
After helping the police and coroners and arranging for someone to call the family, I remembered that her two dogs would have to be fed. Friends offered to accompany me to her house so that I could drive her car back and then get a ride home. The first thing we did was to call the security company on the sign outside the gate. We wanted to avoid being shot as intruders by armed response if we tripped an alarm. Life suddenly seemed cheap again in Johannesburg.
The dogs seemed as though they knew. The house was just as she had left it, and I refused to contemplate the finality of her absence. From 3pm when she hit the ground until 7:30pm when I finally arrived home to my own empty flat, I was in efficiency mode, a place of necessity. I didn't shed a tear. My fingers had swelled slightly with the pressure of keeping in the horror, as though my skin could barely contain the enormity of what I had seen. When it was safe to let the grief out, there were torrents.
The grief is selfish, now that the anger has run its course. It is a lonely kind of sadness. Others mourn the Elle they knew. I also mourn the pictures of death I carry with me, pictures that have aged me in intangible ways. A crumpled white canopy, just out of its container, shrouding part of her like an angel's wing. I have to accept that Elle's body was not the definition of her being. My friend's spirit had long gone from that dry, desolate spot in the veldt where the pieces of her lay silent.
Elle Botha: she lived not just to subsist, but to grow and transform herself and those around her. She died in flight, doing what she loved. I grieve, not for her soul that has gone from here, but for the laughter, companionship, shared pasta dinners, and hot cups of lemon ginger tea that I will miss. I sometimes try to wish that I hadn't seen what I did, but I can't. I felt love for my friend even in the prosaic vigil of being at that place with police tape and orange cones and vans and men with badges. I was there to honor her death.
On a quiet Sunday morning in May, I was fast asleep and diligently adhering to Operation Sleep In and Have a Day Off. The phone by my bed interrupted the peace at 7:30am, and within five minutes I was in my car starting what would be a very long week. A friend (we'll call her "M") had been assaulted in the middle of the night by her ex-boyfriend. I knew them both fairly well, but hadn't seen it coming. I was angry. Through my morning grogginess on the phone, I heard her saying, "I thought I was better than this."
One eye was swollen shut and black, making half her face into a darkened mask. He had punched her repeatedly and then kicked her when she was on the ground, injuring her shoulder. There was blood crusted in her hair where the back of her head hit the floor, and she was shaking in the early winter cold. The police had been called, and we waited for the officer to arrive and take a statement. Minutes passed. We called again. The voice at the other end of the line said someone was on the way.
The female officer arrived in civilian clothes and sat down with us. She told us that if we managed to get a protection order, we should be careful of whom we got to serve the order on the assailant. "Our blacks," she said, "believe that it is okay in their culture to beat women." With those few words, I was terrified that she had invalidated the experience of the white survivor sitting in front of her (beaten by a white man). The facts sitting at the table that morning seemed not to change her opinion, but then she had far more experience than I did dealing with South African domestic violence.
At the hospital M got decent medical care, X rays of her head and shoulders, and a doctor who initially refused to fill out the legal form documenting injuries. Eventually (encouraged by my harsh words when I took him aside to explain his duty) he took pen to paper, but said he was unqualified to determine what had caused the injuries. He wrote only that he detected a smell of alcohol on the victim. I took photographs of the wounds with the policewoman's camera and made a mental note to get a second doctor's opinion on the causes of injury.
I drove M home to her parents' house after the hours of paperwork and medico-legal ordeals. They were horrified at how she looked. By the end of the day, I started to realize how scary it was for me to be helping someone through this process yet again.
Sometimes, though, there is no choice but to be there. By Tuesday she was ready to go to court. The long line outside Room 22 would have made for days of waiting if I hadn't pushed my way to the front. I was dressed in a suit and didn't openly state that I wasn't a lawyer: anything to get M what she needed. We joked that I should just buy myself a black robe and pose as a magistrate. The real magistrate granted the temporary protection order and a final hearing date, but refused to attach a suspended warrant of arrest. It took three tries to get the wording on the order correct. No one at the court would tell us who was responsible for serving the order on M's assailant.
Two days later I found myself in a patrol car heading for his house. The police had offered to be my backup, but refused to serve the order themselves. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry as I clutched the form he had to sign and stood at the door with two uniformed officers behind me. He wasn't home. The following day, I called in a favor from a friend at police headquarters and had him threaten the officers with disciplinary action unless they served the order within the day. I got a full salute the next time I entered the station.
Three weeks after that, I sat in a small office with M, the assailant, and his lawyer. Also present were the assailant's sister, a witness on M's behalf, and a senior magistrate (and Eric, there for moral support). M's hands were sweating so much that water poured from them whenever she unclenched her fists. The air was heavy with tension. The circulation of the photographs, my chat with his lawyer, and M's statement that she had had enough of courts swayed the magistrate beyond argument. I was proud to be her advocate and her friend as we left with warrant of arrest in hand.
Why is justice such a difficult chase? I wish that no one needed me to bully police, attempt to serve protection orders myself, yell at medical professionals, and push to the front of the line. Still, I do it because I can.
Perhaps because I have seen so many women at the crisis end of the trauma cycle, it has been my dream for the last year to offer people and communities something other than crisis management. I have been working to start an Impact self-defense and empowerment program (formerly known in the US as Model Mugging) in Johannesburg. I took my first Impact/Model Mugging class when I was 19 years old and went on to complete several advanced classes on weapons and multiple assailants. In 1996, a New York Times article documented my successful use of the physical techniques while on assignment as a Let's Go travel writer in Jordan.
This month, after a lot of planning and leaps of faith, the dream became a reality. Lynn Auerbach, executive director of Impact Boston, flew in with a total of three instructors to live in my flat for nearly five weeks and help me launch IMPACT South Africa. Instructors Jim Watson, Robin Colodzin, and Rufus Royal volunteered their time to be here.
Raymond Phillips, a South African who teaches kickboxing professionally, has trained as my male instructor and partner. IMPACT is unique because the male instructor wears a full suit of padded armor that students can practice hitting full force. Both Raymond and I completed nearly 100 hours of instructor and fight training, a complement to over a week of training I did in Boston in December. Our classes this month included women, children, and teens in the townships, inner city, and suburbs.
Physical self-defense is only part of the equation. IMPACT focuses on the mental and emotional aspects of boundary setting, relationships, and self-esteem. We offer a new way of perceiving what our rights are in the world and how to exercise them with safety and awareness. The class is safe, non-judgmental, and non-competitive, and can be part of the healing process for survivors of violence.
Johannesburg is a place of fear for most people who live here. It's not just the epidemic levels of child abuse, rape, hate crimes, and murder; it's the way we are all afraid to stop the car at intersections after dark because hijackers could be lurking out of sight. It's the way guns are used out of proportion to the force necessary to snatch cell phones, wallets, jackets, grocery bags. It's the way houses have high walls, spiked gates, armed response guards, and informal shacks have nothing but deadly hot coals to heat the winter air. Most Joburg residents are survivors of some kind of violence, even if only the violence of living in perpetual fear.
Empowerment is not the denial of that fear, but a more aware way of using it. Throughout the month of June, we set out to teach and transform the way people think about defending themselves. We watched as 16-17 year old girls in Soweto started to use their voices, articulating their histories and fears and finding the power to claim their future. We watched as 10-year-old children in the impoverished mining community of Riverlea discovered that they have a right to be safe. We witnessed lesbians who face the threat of hate crimes in the inner city claiming their right as full citizens of this country. We listened as professors at a major university voiced their renewed intention to work together for gender equality in higher education.
I believe that IMPACT South Africa is going to change the way entire communities define fear, safety, and empowerment. I hope to grow it as an organization until I can hand it over to a South African director as a lasting initiative. Until then, I will continue learning and growing into the person I want to be: someone who can create a safe bridge for those willing to cross to the other side of pain.
With great faith, -Taya