Held at Gunpoint

1 Conversation

My father was almost killed this morning.

My father is the head of the Department of Afrikaans at the University of the North, which is the only university in the Northern Province here in South Africa. He started working there in 1980 - so he's been working there for 21 years now. My mother has also been working there - as a lecturer - since 1985.

There have always been trouble at the University - part of the general social upheaval of this country during the apartheid years and afterwards. There's been many protests, sometimes involving violence - rocks thrown at people, cars being burned, people being stabbed. Academically, it has also not been going well. The entire educational system in the country is in turmoil. The administration of the University is also becoming nigh-impossible. It is deeply in debt and its future is threatened. So too the future of its personnel and students. There's been talks of closing the place down and giving people 'retirement packages' or simply dismissing them. As a result of this my parents were already very concerned for their future. At their ages, they will simply not be able to find alternative work should they lose their jobs, and the severance packages would not go very far.

Actually *teaching* people has been becoming more and more difficult. South African society, for a great variety of reasons, has been thrown into disarray, with many social systems having broken down or busy breaking down. The teaching of the Afrikaans language has been particularly badly affected. The University has rapidly run out of Afrikaans students, for a variety of reasons. Note that the University has also run out of students of native African languages, so it's not just that the Afrikaans language is unpopular. There are hardly any language students at all - it is partly the result of a bureaucratic foul-up with student registrations. Anyways - since 1980 the number of Afrikaans students has dropped from many hundreds down to a dozen or so. Not only the quantity, but also the quality of student has suffered. Recent tests done at the university have demonstrated that the first-year students enter the University with hardly any knowledge of the language ... they're supposed to have passed it at matric (twelfth grade) level though.

The academic year hasn't gone well for those few students that registered. The third-year class had a fairly amicable first semester, but then they all got absolutely dismal grades during the mid-year exam. My father talked to them about that, and on that occasion some ill-will apparently developed.

My father said that they *had to* read the prescribed novel. It was a novel of 120 pages, large print, titled 'Die Kind'1. It was a book ordinarily prescribed to Matric pupils, it was about Zulu people rather than white people, and it was the *only* prescribed book for the entire year for those third-year students. The students were unwilling to read the novel - they said it was too difficult. They were third-year students - they had passed two years of Afrikaans university courses. My father chased them out of the class and told them not to come back until they had read the novel.

In the meantime, though, my father thought about it for a while and with my mother's help he wrote out a summary of the novel, eight pages long, that the students could study instead. He also thought of a way to present the questions to them in a way that they would be able to understand more easily.

He did not see his students again to give them the summary, as they did not attend the next class. He would have contacted them but before he could, yesterday, they presented a memorandum to Prof. Salomé Louw2 in which the students said that he had used abusive language towards them (which he did not do, except to insist vehemently that they should read the novel) and saying that they no longer wanted him as lecturer. They also said they did not want Prof. Louw either, incidentally.

My dad asked for a copy of the memorandum.

On the morning of the 18th September 2001 my dad went to work as usual, around eight o' clock. Eight fifteen he went up to his office. On the stairs up he saw a man standing talking on a cellular phone, but did not take much notice. He went to his office, unlocked the door and went in. In front of him on the floor was a piece of paper - the copy of the memorandum he requested, which had been pushed underneath the door. He bent to pick it up. Just then a man came in the door - the same man who had been talking on the cellphone on the stairs. It was not one of my father's students - in fact, not somebody known to him at all.

My father went behind his desk, asked the man to sit down, and asked if he could help with anything. The man started talking in a confused manner. He spoke Afrikaans, but badly. My dad then switched to English and again asked if he could help him. The man said that he was there in connection with the memorandum. Meanwhile, without having knocked or said anything a second man had come into the office and sat down on a chair. He had an old cap on his head, pulled low over his eyes. He closed the door.

Right then, very rapidly, and without any warning, the first man flicked out a 9-mm pistol, cocked it and pointed it directly into my father's face. He put his finger to his lips, and said 'Shh-shh-shh-shh-shh - or I'll shoot you!' There my dad was, staring directly down the barrel of a loaded gun. There was a table between him and the guy, there was no way for him to disarm the guy. He froze. He did not make a sound. He did not wish to shout for help and risk somebody else's life. Usually, when my father enters his office every morning, his neighbour, Dr. Susan Prinsloo, comes into his office to greet him. If she did the same this morning, he and she both could have been in big trouble.

The first man reached out and took my father's laptop computer from the computer stand. He yanked it loose, leaving the power supply, without which the computer is useless. The men asked my dad for money but he did not have any. Meanwhile the other man had risen from the chair and also pulled out a gun - slightly smaller than that of the first. They told my father to lie down. He crouched down on the floor behind/below his desk. The man with the cap came around behind my father's desk and pressed his gun against my father's head. All this time they were still saying that he should keep quiet or else they would shoot him. They asked for his cell phone. He stood up and looked in his briefcase - but fortunately he had left it at home! When he stood up they saw something on his belt though. They thought it might either be a cellphone or a gun. It was my father's pocket knife, and they took it - plus its case. It was a nice knife and a nice case.

They ordered him to lie down again. They then started searching in the filing cabinet and throughout the office. They asked for his office keys. He again stood up and gave it to them. Then they told him to lie down flat on his face on the ground. From there, after a while, he saw one of them going to the telephone behind him. My dad thought he wanted to take it as well. They again told him not to make a noise. Then they left, and as they went they locked the door of the office from the outside.

My dad got up and saw that they had cut the cords of the headsets of both of the office telephones. He shouted to try and attract the attention of some of the people outside, but did not succeed. He then banged on the door and shouted again. This time Dr. Prinsloo heard him. My father asked her to call my mother, and to bring the spare key to the office door so that he could get out.

They then notified University security, and the police also soon showed up. The rest of the day was spent taking down statements and doing other police business. They got some good fingerprints off the telephone headsets.

The University Authorities have so far not contacted my dad. The other lecturers however have all been very supportive. This is the first time that something like this happened to one of the lecturers at the university.

There is a very heavy security presence on the campus. Guards are stationed at all the entrances, people need identity cards to get in, vehicles are searched. There are alarm systems all over the campus. Nevertheless, the people doing the jobs do not always seem to be taking it very seriously. I'm not going to go into their laxness here... suffice to say that it's fairly easy to smuggle weapons onto, and university property off, the campus. A while ago, for example, people broke into and robbed the snack store on campus. The alarms went off and screamed for *days* on end. Nobody responded... the security guards were right there, in front of the damn place, and nobody even went to turn the alarms off. For *days* that alarm screamed morning, noon and night. There was not even an attempt to apprehend whoever did it.

In this case, though, they did take it a bit more seriously, *after the fact*. There's talk that they did indeed catch at least one of the guys.

This is a rather famous event. That evening in Pietersburg I went along with my parents to a talk given by Prof. Louis Changuion on the American support for the Boers during the Boer War3. Almost everybody there apparently had already heard about the assault. People phoned my father, asking if he was OK... it may have been broadcast on the news. My dad had earlier spoken to a journalist friend of our who works for one of our national newspapers as well.

Reflecting back on it, it seems as if it had to do with the dispute between my father and his students. The fact that the first man mentioned the memorandum, and was speaking in Afrikaans, seemed to indicate the connection. It may have been an attempt at intimidation. Whatever... it was totally pointless. Like I said, my father had already been working at a way to ease the problems the students had, and everything could have been resolved with a bit more talking. Now, if any links between the assailants and any of the third-year students can be found, they will be in deep trouble. The guys who did it *are* in pretty serious trouble. They basically threw away their future, for what???

As for my dad, he is now not very eager to return to that university. As can be expected, he will likely experience some sort of post-traumatic stress over the next days and weeks, or even longer. He does not feel safe at his place of work any more. He now knows what it feels like to stare down the barrel of a gun, to have it pressed against his head, to fear that he is going to die. It is a very helpless and humiliating feeling. He now distrusts every unfamiliar face that he sees on the campus. He has already not been enjoying the situation there as a result of all the other problems that he, his department and the university in general has been experiencing.

He will definitely stay away for the foreseeable future. My mother, though, still want to go to work. My father fears for her safety, because whoever is involved may want to harm her to get at him.

Both my parents will probably quit their jobs now because of safety concerns as well as the total lack of job satisfaction and the precarious future of the institution. For them there is not really any meaningful, alternative work that they can do in this country. We are talking of emigrating - New Zealand is the favoured choice, because my uncle4, aunt and cousin already live there. I can accompany them easily, but it will depend on my sister and her husband. She's a medical doctor and he an engineer, and they both are very reluctant to leave. We don't want to leave them here, though, and we don't want to be separated from them. We already have lost connections with other relatives - a cousin on my mother's side now lives in Australia. Family connections are very important to us Afrikaners. Personally I truly dread leaving this country... I feel like I am rooted in its soil. I cannot imagine living anywhere else than in Africa.

I have been talking to my father a lot today, and will probably do so over the coming days as well. He has given me permission to write about it here, in public. Our wish is to let people know how things go over here - the problems that we experience in this country. While this is the first time a lecturer has been held at gunpoint in his office here, different bad things have happened to other people. For instance, once a bus carrying lecturers on their way to the Giyani campus was attacked by gunmen. They shot the driver dead, and threatened to kill the others. My father did on occasion go to Giyani, but thankfully was not on the bus on that day. However another guy whom I knew was - an elderly professor who trained at the gym where I worked back then. That guy - a very kind old gent - had to grab a gun and shoot one of the attackers, by which act they managed to escape. Many University lecturers had their offices robbed - sometimes entirely stripped bare. In town, many people have been assaulted, threatened, robbed and even killed. The father of a high-school friend of mine was once also attacked in his office by a gang of men. He was not lucky - he was killed, butchered with knives. It was an act of terror.

We are thankful that we are all still okay. My father is physically unscathed... but psychologically we have all taken quite a big blow. Still, it could have ended so much worse, very easily. Many other people in similar situations were not so lucky - ended up worse, in various ways.

Why do I tell you this? Well, it is news. It is newsworthy. It will probably appear in the national newspapers. I have the 'inside scoop' on this particular story. But mainly I wish that people should start thinking about all of this senseless violence. There is something wrong in the world. There is something wrong in this country... we pretty well understand what it is, where it comes from, we even have a good idea what needs to be done about it... but in the meantime, many people suffer. I wish that people would start thinking about this. And think of the world, countries outside of South Africa. This little story I tell today is very, very tiny in relation to all the tragedies that happen daily, around the world. Seen objectively, it pales into insignificance compared to what happened in New York. And yet, subjectively, it matters a lot to my father, my mother, myself, my sister and her husband who are far away on the 'Rand, our family - including my uncle and aunt and their son in New Zealand - and it certainly did matter to those guys who did it, and the people (if any) who incited them to do it, or they would not have done it.

My father is not embittered towards his assailants. We have talked it over... people are in desperate situations here in this country. For so many people, the future looks so very bleak. People have little to lose. Their nerves are frayed, they are hovering on the brink of sanity. Matters go out of control very easily.

But think about it - can we not find a way to prevent this sort of thing? It's so unnecessary, and it hurts so many people.

Where do the problems in the world come from? Is there something wrong with our attitudes? Why don't we appreciate our lives, our selves, and each other more? Why do we make things harder for each other, instead of easier?

Please, let's try and make things better - for everybody.

Einauni Muznobotti

20.09.01. Front Page

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1The Child.2I'm not sure what her position is called but she's a bit higher up than my dad3I bet none of you even knew about that.4My father's eldest brother, who has the same name as I.

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