Written by Rinesh Chetty (Orthopaedic and Spinal surgeon):
(as published in LinkedIN)
This is not who WE are.
The first task to heal from a trauma is to write down your thoughts, it might not please or be acceptable to all, but it is the first step in recognising the ordeal and it allows one’s mind to move forward. I urge you to do the same.
I am a doctor and I shall not judge, my patient is my priority, first and foremost. I accepted my taught skills with a pledge to do no harm and not allow my emotions cloud my judgement. A difficult principle to hold strong to after the heart-breaking and painful week my beautiful province had to undergo. In my professional teaching lies an inherent principle, one that my parents, mentors and comic books only ever taught me: Always see in grey.
I grew up in Phoenix, moved to Westville in my high school years before I left home for university in the Free state. I returned to specialise and serve in my province. I witnessed and experienced every face of discrimination, be it masquerading as orientation, initiation, tradition, protocol, policy or even friendship. Living in Phoenix I remember the almost daily gunshots, conflicts and casspirs rolling around locally as well as towards the other surrounding settlements. Unrest was the norm, it was a daily way of life, for everyone that lived in the less privileged areas. Phoenix and it’s surrounded areas have historical always been the first to spark in the times of civil unrest. These areas always bore the brunt of conflicts internally and externally in the past. Those scars of old conflict run deep within the now adult and elderly communities that still live in all these locations, many wounds not healed, some still lay open and a few still bleed.
I especially recall one night about 35yrs ago my parents woke up my younger sister and myself, pushed us into the back of their car and tore through the dirt road that ran along then single story Whitehouse park shopping center. It was strange to me as I peered under the blanket covering our heads. There was fog that night? I could not understand why were some houses on fire, a thick smell of smoke and burnt rubber in the air (a smell I only recognise now) started to choke me as we were “hidden” in the back seat. We were fleeing our home….
Cut to 2021:
There are many people in other less effected or even unaffected areas of this country that might think they know what occurred down here in KZN based on what they have seen, heard or read. Please may I offer my thoughts, it might not sit well with some, given how you decide to judge me: be it who I am, were I came from or what I do but I urge you as you continue to read, know I am a South African and I only have love for my country.
For the last week, people in the effected areas of this province were ALONE, there was no help, there was no support, the police station phones rang off the hook, unanswered, ALL private sercurity companies were not available as they themselves were overwhelmed. WE were all helpless and taken by complete surprise by the events of the recent 7 day siege.
Everyone from BOTH sides of the clear cut moral line was not prepared for what was going on down here. A sentiment shared by everyone tasked to protect and provide for all communities including the government.
The “looters” themselves, were probably surprised by the lack of resistance they would experience, which is a main factor to why, the reach of the unrest in KZN mushroomed to areas beyond the so called “hotspots” that we were accustom to living in the “old” South Africa. This was not just some “old” South African tale… and should not be handled or treated as such.
I joined our community watch program, set up overnight because for me it was the only way I could hide my own kryptonite away of being helpless.
I stood watching over a major intersection and garage in my normally peaceful suburb. It was a surreal experience, confirming what I had been hearing. I observed whilst on my midnight to 04h00 shifts as different vehicles with no number plates would park adjacent to the complex which also housed a large gas tank reserve, convenience store and two atms. I would report the almost hourly event, as I would do so they would leave the area as suspiciously and sinisterly as they would drive in. Through the chemical laden smoke from the adjacent torched business park, the bitter winter winds and cloudless night, I felt like I was being stalked by a wolf, who was testing my awareness, waiting for the right time to pounce.
This was organized crime, either planned or an opportunistic attempt performed under the camouflage of the chaos created by an incited frustrated group of looters. What might have started or dressed up as a protest soon descended into a real-life set of a John Carpenter movie. So for the people that don’t know: the gunshots, explosions and flames were real. The fear, helplessness, frustration, desperation and anger was visible in the eyes of everyone effected and involved.
There has been many comments on the origins surrounding what led to and fuelled these events i.e: the rule of law, lockdowns, responsible looting, poverty and inequalities(A model C high school old boy and CEO would argue against this), which all in their own right hold true but there has been a specific spotlight over Phoenix as a major flashpoint area leading to a now national polarisation of interracial tensions because of the human rights violations that occurred there during this violent unrest.
Being an ex-resident of Phoenix and the 3rd generation of doctors in my family that provides service to all people that live in every area of KZN that experienced unrest, I wanted to find the logic behind how this has happened and how I make sense of this, having now had time to process how I feel, you feel, they feel, we feel and everyone else feels.
Understand that there were three crowds involved around this event and before you decide who or what is right or wrong. Focus on the cause of the natural human origin of the actions of all three groups. Understand the factors that influenced and the forces that manipulated them.
All three were influenced by a phenomenon called a pack or mob mentality, which describes how people can be influenced by their peers to adopt certain behaviors on a largely emotional, rather than rational, basis. A “Mob mentality,” as defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “a large and disorderly crowd of people, especially one bent on riotous or destructive action.” It is imperative to understand the greater the emotional drive of the mob the easier it becomes to manipulate their actions.
The first mob, this group received the most attention early on: looters and or protesters with no more to lose, resorted to violence that had accumulated over generations of poverty and inequality. Manipulated into unreasonable actions by so called leaders, bent on using the most vulnerable to bring OUR country to it’s knees. Within this group, criminals and opportunists hopped onto this run away train and enjoyed a ride of lawlessness.
The second mob, started getting attention once the government admitted they could not help. These were groups of community members, desperate and scared with no options but to stand their ground, and defend their property, businesses and family. Untrained, unprepared and panicked citizens needed to face their worst fears, overnight. Within this group, criminals and opportunists again latched onto some of the vulnerable crowd, served their own interests. Offering protection and in return gained loyalty and control over the same community ironically they hold ransom on a daily basis. Some were even stimulated by their new found agency of authority, attention and worship exhibiting similar mental traits and behaviour as a body builder would enjoy after an injection of steroids.
The third mob getting all the attention now is everyone else who is forming their opinion using the bias media reports, social platform posts or videos (some confirmed to be fake), second hand accounts and unverified information, to push out a narrative that allows the events of the week to become easier to swallow by forcing it to fit an “old” South African view. Many being manipulated to divert the attention be it intentionally or unintentionally towards this being the relevant reason for concern rather than focusing on the whole cycle of unacceptable events and circumstances that have put this country’s fragile spine of democracy at risk and already pushed US all ten steps back.
By making this an old South African tale it does make it more palatable and acceptable to swallow because race has always been a default position we fall into at times of conflict or strife because it is visually the clearest difference to see and most comfortable beam to balance on. It is also easier that way to comprehend it being a factor for all that are still sporting the scars of the old country. Bear in mind this group to has, criminals and opportunists jumping onto the band wagon, to push their own agendas and aspirations by taking advantage of the anger and emotions of the whole country. I can assure you these criminals were just as worried about their business interests as many others were during this week of anarchy. They sat safely in their homes unaffected, silently watching as people, jobs and schools burned only concerned with how they can take advantage of the situation rather than help OUR South Africa.
WE all need to slow down especially if you fall into any of these three mobs and accept the mechanics of the fallout of these events. WE must constantly remind ourselves of the mob mentality principle. South Africans need to call it for what it is, be it a massacre and the negative constraints of the word, then fair enough. WE all must accept it was a massacre, for all the victims, the rule of law, the economy and the constitution of OUR country.
At no stage should this be swept under the carpet or played down, the exact opposite needs to happen, it should not be taken lightly because it was just Kzn and the “normal” “usual” areas in Gauteng that were effected.
We need a formal Truth and Reconciliation Commission body to be assembled. Witnesses must be identified as victims of gross human rights violations and must be invited to give statements about their experiences. Perpetrators of violence can also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. Leaving the investigation process to the law will only further delay healing, fracture communities and dilute the governments trust.
We ALL need the truth to be told and only then will reconciliation follow. Communication, Amnesty and forgiveness will be the only way WE can flush out the opportunists, criminals and abate manipulation from ALL three groups. The families of lost loved ones need the truth to accept their anger and allow them to move on through their grief cycle.
Empathy must accompany this whole commission so that we all process the facts and evidence in the context of the environment in which it has been obtained.
The final most difficult task is to remain neutral.
When tasked with a criminal as a patient or of recent just a person involved in looting, I remind my team to take the time to follow our principles, to remain neutral: We must remove our bias, turn off my inner emotions that overcome us and then “grey the picture”. We use this term to remind ourselves daily if required, not to give into these emotions and follow our oath. We provide treatment without apprehension, so that the guilt does not burden us, if we do not. We must stay neutral and clear which is critical in our profession as it is in most others.
In summary, WE have some hard work to do, harder than ever before, given that we are still knee deep battling a pandemic. In order to heal these re-opened wounds, any surgeon knows: a cut though an old scar takes the longest time to heal and always requires the most attention, but once closed, the tissue binds stronger and harder than before.
So wait until you choose to throw the first stone, swing that sword or pick a side after these horrible heart-breaking, soul destroying events that occurred, remember unlike that time when my parents had an option to flee to a place they felt was safe. People like me had to leave our families at home and stand watch because this time, unlike 35yrs ago there was no place to flee to. It breaks my heart to admit that for the first time in my life I did not feel safe in my country.
We were ALL alone, disorientated and only found strength in numbers, be it on different poles of the moral compass. Let it be known the compass always works perfectly in hindsight and operates clearly for all those that did not experience the same week we did.
Grey the picture first, empathise and understand the mob mentality. It can shed some much needed light on how to move forward through these dark days in OUR New South Africa.