Home Invasion: A Tale of Two Takeaways

We had just come back from the Saturday evening takeaway run – Chicken Nuggets and fries from McDonalds, lunchbox combo, no prawns, from Sakura Sushi – and I had pressed the button on the blue remote to Open Sesame the gate. I drove in. The garage door opened. I parked and cut the engine.

I could hear that familiar, comforting sound of the suburbs: the gate rattling shut on its rails, the filaments of the electric fence quivering. Then, another sound. Footfalls on facebrick. Loud, heavy.

I half-turned to see a solid force charging towards me, backlit by the glow of the security lamps, and the man was standing by my side, in the combat position, feet planted like an oak tree, both hands outstretched on the grip of a gun. A 9mm, pointed at my head.

For pretty much all of my life, I have been a Johannesburger. Often, waiting for the robots to change, I have fantasised about what I would do in these scenarios. I would turn in the driver’s seat, slowly, as advised. I would put my hands in the air. I would make no sudden, rash movements.

Then – blam – I would elbow the car door against my attacker, knocking him off balance, and I would catch his flying gun and stand over him, because I would not let him rob me of my property. Then the lights always blink to green and I blend in with the traffic.

“Get out, get out, get out,” the man was saying. Stockily built, round face, smart casual. “Phones. Where are your phones? Lie down. Get up. Don’t look at me.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw a white SUV pulling up outside my house, and waiting. Then the other guy, leaner, skinny blue denims, black sneakers, holding a sawn-off shotgun and aiming it at my midsection.

The weapon looked almost too clean to me, its barrels lovingly polished, and I wondered for a moment if it was real, or something picked up off the shelf at China City. I’m going to fast-forward through the next part. The men pushed us down the corridor and into the bedroom, and they made us lie down and they robbed us.

Over and over, between the threats and the swearing and the feet pushed down on heads: “We’re not going to hurt you.” So here we are, a few days later, unhurt. Survivors.

The men who stormed our house that night robbed us of things, and private space, and minutes that seemed like hours, and a quiet Saturday night at home, dining on sushi and McDonalds. They robbed us of peace of mind and comfort and security.

But I will not let them rob me of the way I feel about this place. I will not let this be my metaphor.

At some point in the evening, I found myself stumbling down a side-street in the township of Alex, barefoot, my neighbour’s iPhone in my hand, tracking a little green dot to the possible location of my stolen goods. Then the signal disappeared, like a flame strangled on a wick.

A policeman with an assault rifle, standing in a doorway, called me over and asked if I recognised anyone. I strolled into someone’s home, into their private space. But all I saw was people sitting in their lounge, calmly, watching television and having supper.

I felt more than ever the duality of our society, the two worlds we live in, and the things in those worlds that we have in common. For one thing, our destiny.

I have learned, over the last few days, that we are a circle, a community, a constellation of individuals who in some way depend on and care about each other. A social network.

The other day, a guy named Wayne, who I have never even met, sent his mother around – his mother – to drop off a backpack containing a MacBook Pro for me to use.

“What can you do?” she said, throwing her hands in the air. “What can you do?” And then: “You’re alive. Baruch HaShem.” Thank the Lord.

Later in the day, Louise, from the PTA, came around with butternut soup and a chicken supper. Patty popped by on her way to yoga, with Lebanese bread and a big tub of hummus. Her car stood idling in exactly the same spot where the getaway driver had idled his SUV a couple of nights before.

The police, uniformed and plainclothes, have been uniformly professional and courteous and determined, fighting the good fight with their heavy caseloads and their sheafs of paperwork.

The volunteer counsellor, Michelle, in her reflective yellow vest, came over late at night to comfort my daughters, and then came back the next day to find out if they felt okay to go and see Justin Bieber.

On Twitter, I have been overwhelmed with wishes for our safety and security, and offers of iPhones and iPads and iMacs for me to loan, just because I tweeted on the night that all my Apple goods were gone. I have heard stories. War stories.

Stories of other home invasions, and break-ins, and muggings, and violations. They all say the same thing: “You are not alone.”

A journalist asked me, “What thoughts went through your mind, when you saw the guy pointing the gun at your head?” I laughed at the question, because I have asked it so often as a journalist myself. Finally, I know the answer. Nothing goes through your mind.

Between fight and flight there lies another response: numb, unblinking incomprehension. Oddly, I didn’t feel fear when I saw the gun, which is not to say I felt fearless. I just felt, for a frozen moment…nothing.

I have felt and thought a lot of things since then, and one thing that keeps going through my mind is something my friend Denis Beckett once wrote, in one of those pieces we need every now and again to remind us of our reasons for being here.

“For every guy who holds up a gun,” wrote Denis, “there are 99 who hold out a hand of friendship.” So this now is my mantra. This is my takeaway. I think it has to be. Otherwise, the man with the gun has won.

*This piece appeared in the Review section of the Sunday Times on May 19, 2013

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14 comments on “Home Invasion: A Tale of Two Takeaways

  1. What you wrote here is so true Gus; through it all we always need to still focus on the good in people.

    We are all so glad you are safe! I remember hosting a fairy-themed birthday party for your kids once and my ma sends love to Amanda too!

    Denis Beckett could not have penned more true words.

  2. Fantastically reflective and non-self-absorbed. Extremely thankful someone of your intellectual and emotional quotient has not been crushed by this horrific experience. Keep believing. Keep writing.

  3. Wow. It would be so easy to bemoan the state of our country, threaten to emigrate etc. This is bravely done Gus. Thanks for seeing the good in the face of the bad.
    Funny, it was that day that the minibus taxi tried to shortcut thought the Engen garage. What a contrast.
    Thank you for sharing this.

    • Much thanks Mike – what a day that was, beginning withe the massive traffic jam caused by the horde of bikers protesting against the eTolls. Life is never dull in Joburg.

  4. Exquisitely-told horror story Gus. Minus a few goodies, but flipping stoked you’re alive. So thankful that you aren’t burrowing away from it, or piling another stone to add to the sadness stack, your rational defiance is strengthening.

    Now but to hope that the elegantly-kitted robbers in leadership, roar off in their accursed SUVs, and give the 99% a chance to share the great untold story we know we still have in us as a nation.

  5. On monday 22 May 2012 me & my family went through the very same thing Gus. I salute you for the uplifting way you choose to share this tragedy. “You are not alone”

  6. A truly eloquent essay on what must have been a truly horrifying experinence. You’re faith in the humanity of people, despite this incident, and maybe because of it, is inspiring.

  7. Hi Gus

    What an inspiring peace. I wish I could be as stoic and positive as you…

    This past Monday, four well dressed, well spoken and well armed guys entered my home-office and held me captive and at gunpoint for over an hour, while they proceeded to rob the office and then ransack the main house, where they held our domestic worker and members of our gardening service captive.

    As a maths/science person I have always believed it to be a case of when not if – that’s what the stats said. It could not continue to happen to friends and family without one day happening to us. Indeed this has been my mantra for many years. And then on Monday it happened – I had four guns pointed at my head.

    The real scary thing is not that it has happened, but that the chances of it happening again have not lessened. Every day, the dice roll again and the game begins afresh.

    Unlike you and Denis, who is also a friend of mine, I’m not so positive. In fact I’m really angry. I know its still raw and that time will help heal. I also know that I would probably manage again if it were to happen again. But if my wife and daughter were in the house or in another room and not in Cape Town as they were in this instance, then I don’t think I would have coped at all ….

  8. Sorry to hear about your traumatic experience, Leonard. Truly awful. It’s an outrage that we have to live like this, awaiting the roll of the dice. But I can tell you that things do get better, and that the good people out there can and do make a huge difference. As Denis Beckett also likes to say, I wish you and you family kgotso and sterkte in coping with this.

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