Jerome Cornelius lived in South Africa at the time of “the Station Strangler”, and remembers the fear that still permeates his view of masculinity.
What the world knows about 1994 in South Africa is the first democratic national election. The beaming face of Nelson Mandela on posters hanging from lamp poles urging people to vote for the African National Congress.
With the upcoming national election, and the nation fast losing hope in its leadership with violent crime, high levels unemployment, a high number of rape cases and corruption—something else about 1994 comes to mind. This may have gone over the heads of the international media (I was 9 years old, so I was not glued to the wire as I am now). What was more important than the intangible feeling of the elections and the unmeasurable hope was something else—The Station Strangler.
The Station Strangler was the name given to a man who killed boys after luring them at train stations, and then dumped their bodies. This happened in and around Mitchell’s Plain, an area that was earmarked for (what we in South Africa call) “coloured” people, also known internationally as “mixed race.”
Everyone at school was buzzing about it. For the first time in my life, a threat was not something on screen. It was not Spiderman fighting his dark counterpart, Venom on a Saturday morning while I ate my cereal; it was not It the clown giving me nightmares for two weeks when I watched it without permission; it was now real. It was an identikit that was all over the news, a black and white drawing that didn’t look like anyone I knew, and even though Mitchell’s Plain is relatively far, 25 minutes, from the suburb where I live, it was as if he was there. This felt even more so because I was the Station Strangler’s demographic, and according to the fear mongering, I was a victim waiting to happen.
The boys were also raped. As if being gay was not an already perceived act of perversion, now it was even more incorrectly perceived as something brutal and carnal by people lashing out at the psychotic actions of one man. Words like “bunny” and “moffie” (local equivalents of “faggot”) were freely bandied when describing the killer.
Even though someone was arrested, the true identity of the killer still remains suspect. (There are still doubts about Norman Afzal Simons’s testimony. He is, to date, the face of the Station Strangler, despite questionable evidence to the contrary).
The story of South Africa, however, was different. The period of hope was sustained for a few years, and we were the shining example to the world. We were that annoying cousin who scrubs up nicely and whom your parents make you give your toys, just for being good. But we weren’t. We were still holding the fear close to our chests, not even aware that while we were clutching on to it so tightly, the world went on around us.
A few years later a male nurse was appointed at my school. Something was not right about him. My friends and I were a real Nancy Drew (or Hardy Boys, or Harry Potter. Take your pick) bunch and we would talk every break time about this man, hypothesising about his whereabouts, credentials and motives. There were tales of how he would give strange medicinal concoctions to kids complaining of a mere stomach ache, which induced unnecessary vomiting. I found it most strange that the epaulettes on his white jacket were stapled on.
It all came to a head one Saturday morning when he was arrested at the school. He was getting ready to take a bunch of the kids from his first aid course on a trip to the beach. He was indeed a fraud, and who knew what he would have done with them.
We were right about him, but strangely enough, even though it was the hot topic of conversation at school that Monday, I felt the fear again. A chill up my spine made me question every man who looked like him (and, ironically, he fit the profile of the Station Strangler) and the fear was back. Here was someone who was meant to be a role model, his profession one of trust. I now wonder how broken a world we are with fathers leaving families, and even world leaders abandoning their constituents in various ways.
What I don’t have is an in-depth psychological report on this fear, or what exactly it is. What I do know is that this is a fear that I’ve noticed over time and even fiction.
This is me acknowledging the primal fear that has lived within me, and that I felt too silly to talk about until now. Mass hysteria seems to be accepted; acknowledging fear is not.
I see it in a father who plays with his son until the age when playing stops, and meaningful communication should start, but does not.
I see it in male friends, who want to be there for their male friends in a way that is emotional, which might involve hugging and saying more that “It’s ok, bro”, yet are prevented from doing so.
I see it in men lashing out when confronted by something in which they have to face their past, feelings or manhood.
I see it in the distorted faces of people, mostly men, who are forced to confront their homophobia, and still cannot rationally explain why it is indeed a phobia.
I see it in the faces of desperate men, women and children who do not know how to deal with a fear that lives within, and is also still a threat from “out there”.
With an ailing Mandela on his last, and a patriarchal country at conflict with itself, I wonder when we will lay down the sword of manliness and start recognising that what we feel is our right. To be vulnerable and weak is normal, and a stiff upper lip may work in a war zone, but we live in a world where men must now rise to the challenge of changes, and be better.
Photo: faceme / flickr