Andrew Harding, BBC foreign correspondent and author of 2016’s excellent The Mayor of Mogadishu, has a new book out. Titled These Are Not Gentle People, it’s almost certainly going to be in the running for a few literary prizes, but it’s an absolute shoo-in to take the coveted "Most understated book title of the year" award.

Indeed, these are not gentle people. Harding’s book explores the ramifications of the murder of two men, Samuel Tjixa and Simon Jubeba, on the outskirts of the Free State town of Parys in 2016. About 40 men, including white farmers and a policeman, are also involved.

The book, billed as a true story, or "narrative nonfiction", reads a bit like Carson McCullers meets Franz Kafka but with all the hope leached out. It’s South African grim rather than Southern Gothic.

The events described in the book are so recent, there’s actually a Covid-19 bit where, "because of the government’s lockdown rules", the judge delivering the final verdict only has "to issue a brief summary verdict, rather than a full and lengthy judgment, on account of the danger of exposing people to the virus for too long in an open court".

It’s a moment of high absurdity, given the ramshackle and shoddy way the SA justice system has worked up until that point.

Indeed, if this were a work of fiction set in a Czech dreamscape or a made-up town in the American deep south, we could wax lyrical about how funny the existential horror of it all is, and how eloquently it speaks to an absurd, broken idea of humanity.

But it’s hard to do that when it’s true, and impossible when it’s you.

In his blurb for the book, FM columnist Justice Malala writes: "Every so often a book comes very close to defining a nation," with the implication that These Are Not Gentle People is one of those books.

If this is true, then SA is a terrible, heartless, destroyed nation, teetering on the edge of a banal anarchy.

There are many vignettes I could draw out of the book to convince you, if you needed convincing, that we are a terrible people in a terrible place. For example, the fact that Ruth Qokotha, the mother of Tjixa, is forced to re-identify him from a morgue photograph three years after his death, because nobody involved in the case has ever really bothered clarifying which dead body’s particulars went with which victim’s identity.

Harding describes it as the result of "a legal system … that seemed to attach little importance to the individual identities of the deceased. It was as though Simon [Jubeba] and Samuel [Tjixa’s] dead bodies had been, rhetorically, blended into one conveniently ambiguous piece of flesh."

It’s a level of surreal neglect that would read well as fiction, but which is a scathing indictment of how broken our justice system really is.

On the same day that I finished reading Harding’s book, I read a fascinating piece by Ferial Haffajee for Daily Maverick, with the headline "From Schoolyard Bullies to Emerging Fascists: The EFF’s Unstoppable Politics of Violence".

Haffajee identifies "at least 11 serious instances of violence — or violent intent and potential for violence — in two years by the EFF, with accountability in only two."

She further writes that "while criminal and civil charges have been laid against [the EFF], most of these have not succeeded or the cases are still dragging their way through court, creating a playing field of impunity for the red berets".

Harding’s book recounts what happened to the five farmers who eventually stood trial for murder. All five were found not guilty of murder, but guilty of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm.

However, Harding writes, "their lawyers had no concerns about any custodial sentences … Not after the judge had rejected the state’s entire case … There was absolutely no risk, they were confident, of a single one of their clients spending a day in prison."

When the mother of Tjixa hears of the "not guilty" verdict, we are told that, "if pressed, she would admit to feeling angry, outraged. But in that instant … she felt distracted by a more pressing concern."

She’d hoped for some compensation, but "now that seemed unlikely. She was 58. Two more years before she could get her pension. She’d asked, three times, for state aid because of her ill health. No luck."

It’s a searing reminder that justice is a luxury that not many can afford.

The book also highlights one of the potential consequences of a stuttering, flawed justice system that is haphazard about what constitutes justice, and about when justice is applied: the fact that people and organisations start to take justice into their own hands. And when that happens, it escalates beyond control.

For example, one of the ironies — if we can use that word to describe something so fraught — of the recent Clicks protests by the EFF is the following press release.

"The EFF condemns in the strongest terms the psychotic white woman who drew out a gun against members of the EFF in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, while they were engaged in a peaceful protest against Clicks.

"The woman pulled out the firearm after provoking EFF members, and the fact that there has been no outrage at ... the branding [sic] of a gun against unarmed black people reveals that black life in this country does not matter."

The press release goes on to "urge all fighters and ground forces to meet any such threats of violence with double the violence and aggression … We wish to communicate to all ground forces and members that if they push you, push them back … We will now meet violence with double the violence because black people in this country cannot depend on law enforcement to protect them."

It’s the same rationale that the farmers used, according to Harding’s book, to justify their vigilante justice and attacks on Tjixa and Jubeba — that the justice system and law enforcement can’t be trusted to do their jobs.

In her comment on the book, journalist Redi Tlhabi writes: "These Are Not Gentle People is an SA tragedy. Page after page reveals the painful truth that the sun has set on Mandela’s Rainbow Nation. Dreams and hopes of a better future have been silenced by fear, racial tension and a disengaged political system. The lives of the characters, from the landless and poor blacks, to the white landowners caught in a vortex of fear and oblivion, are a true reflection of SA’s unfinished business — building a country that belongs to all."

What it means:

Things get rapidly out of hand when a flawed system leads to people taking the law into their own hands

In an author’s note that reads as an afterthought to try to inject a sliver of hope, Harding writes of an early meeting between the mother of the murder victim and her employer, a relative of the murder accused.

"For me," writes Harding, "the scene represents … a small reminder that in this inspiring, frustrating, fractured country, it is possible for two or more realities to coexist, to orbit each other, and that wounds — old and new — can only heal properly when we make the effort to recognise, and to acknowledge, someone else’s truth."

Strangely, the scene to which he alludes has none of this, and is instead characterised by incomprehension and anger. It’s as if the author, after bearing witness to the sheer incompetence of the justice system, is compelled to offer up the character of South Africans as our only source of hope.

Nothing in our recent political and social landscape — and certainly nothing in Harding’s book — indicates that this will be the case. If we don’t fix the structures of justice, we’re going to see more of the vigilantism of the farmers of These Are Not Gentle People and, indeed, of political parties like the EFF.

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