KATE SIDLEY: Suna Venter - hounded to death in the land of the broken-hearted
'She had recently been diagnosed with "Broken Heart Syndrome", a cardiac condition known as stress cardiomyopathy which severely weakens the heart muscles'
A young woman has been hounded and harassed to death.
Suna Venter, one of the ‘SABC 8’ journalists fired for speaking out against Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s policies at the public broadcaster, died last week at 32. She had recently been diagnosed with "Broken Heart Syndrome", a cardiac condition known as stress cardiomyopathy which severely weakens the heart muscles.
In a photograph online, taken at a protest, she has a black cross of masking tape over her mouth
Since being fired, and then reinstated, the journalist had been mercilessly harassed and abused: shot in the face with a pellet gun, threatened on the phone, assaulted, and abducted and tied to a tree at Melville Koppies while the grass around her was set alight. Her flat was repeatedly broken into, her tyres slashed and the brake cables on her car cut. Her family believe that her ongoing victimisation and trauma lead to the extreme and unremitting stress that damaged her heart and, ultimately, lead to her death.
In a photograph online, taken at a protest, she has a black cross of masking tape over her mouth. In another, taken from facebook, she is outdoors, her long gingery hair ruffled by the wind. She looks younger than her 32 years and has a slightly serious air, even in the candid shots. I imagine her mother and father looking at the photographs, seeing the face of their beloved child, bullied and frightened to a point where her heart, quite literally, broke.
It’s hard to know how to think about Venter’s death, how to process it, beyond being just battered by the utter horror of it. There are many elements to this tragic story, each appalling. The poisonous train-wreck at the SABC. The journalists who continue to fight for some measure of decent news coverage. The very real threat to press freedom in this country, and the intimidation to which individual journalists are increasingly being subjected. The hired thugs, and the thieves who pay them. The hardening of positions and hearts. The melting away of common ground, the ground that says, we do not torment and torture other people because we disagree with them.
Suna Venter has been hailed, in her death, as a martyr for freedom of expression. As a hero. Those who knew her speak of her passion for current affairs, her courage and her principles. She was by all accounts a remarkable woman. But she’s not a hero. She’s a victim, a young woman who paid an unimaginably high price for that courage and those principles. She died of broken heart.
On the day that I hear of Venter’s death, I’m at Wits for a meeting, and take a wander among the small oil paintings by Moses Tladi, on exhibition at WAM. Tladi is cited as the first black painter to have had a formal exhibition, and the first, in 1931, to exhibit at the SA National Gallery. At its most simplistic, his is a story of a rural young man come to the city to make his way, finding and developing a talent, building a career and a family, within, of course, the strictures of the time.
The painting of the family home is unfinished. The Tladi family was forcibly moved from this house in the 1950s as part of “black spot removals” of apartheid
The paintings are of landscapes in a traditional style. While outside Braamfontein teems and journalists are assailed in their own homes by hired thugs, and a family mourns their red-haired daughter, in here, the morning sun catches the Magaliesberg mountains in a soft yellow glow; there’s a cherry tree; a large comfortable house where Tladi worked as a gardener; hills and trees and rivers of a distinctively South African beauty. The pictures are lovely, and accessible in a way that is somehow both uplifting and soothing.
I stop at a painting of a low, red-roofed house with a green front door. There’s a window on either side of the door - a non matching couple, one with six panes, the other 12 - and a red stoep that gives onto a green lawn. The house is framed by a large shady tree on either side, dappling the grass below. The writing alongside tells us that this is Tladi’s house in Kensington B, now a built-up suburb out Randburg way, but then, the country. He and his wife moved there from Sophiatown to give their children a rustic life with a garden to play in. They planted an orchard and raised a family.
The painting of the family home is unfinished. The Tladi family was forcibly moved from this house in the 1950s as part of “black spot removals” of apartheid. In despair and anger, Tladi took an axe and cut down every one of the peach trees he had planted on his three acres.
The family was dumped in Soweto, in a dusty bit of veld with no toilets, no schools, no transport. And no low red-roofed house surrounded by peach trees. Moses Tladi put his paintings in a box and never painted again. The writing on the wall tells us that his health deteriorated and three years later, at just 56, he died of what his children describe as a broken heart.
It’s a coincidence of phrase that takes my breath away. Six decades and a world apart. Two South Africans, two broken hearts.