I can’t quite figure out why South Africa is fascinated with the death Happy Sindane. That was my earliest thought when I saw story after story of the end of Sindane. I know now, though, that is not what is going on in the coverage Sindane’s murder has received.
The question one should ask, to which I don’t have a complete answer, is why the media in South Africa believe South Africans are, or ought to be, interested in Sindane’s death? Soon as I came upon this formulation, it struck me, once again, how perceptive Noam Chomsky was when he spoke on the manufactured-ness of news. One of the powers of the media is in what we pay attention to in the public sphere. This not necessarily bad, for reporters go out and find stories which become news for readers. But the framing of our attention is not always positive. Think here too why Oscar Pistorius’ killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp became news which many of us were sucked into, and how it was used to write the story of South Africa, but also how the story was framed as not so much on Steenkamp but of the paralympian.
The truth is there is nothing special about the gruesome end Sindane met. Happy Sindane’s life was doomed, like that of many other young men like him. Ironically, despite of what I just said, or because of it, perhaps if he were white, as he wanted to be, and had been bashed to death as he was, that would make his death special and worthy of the column inches his apparent homicide received. White lives matter.
But happy was not white. And so nothing singles the body of the 28-year old from millions of young black and coloured (or mixed-race) South African men whose lives are brutally cut short. Sindane is in nearly every way similar to many young black and coloured men whose demise does not raise an eyebrow in the land save from their loved ones. Nothing, then, marks the young mixed-race man horrible end – except a certain puzzling prurient fascination about the young man’s unhappy beginnings from a cross racial coupling.
We would not have known of Sindane’s racial heritage but for that moment in 2003 when he walked into a police station and claimed he was a white 16 year old who had been kidnaped as a boy by a black family who had raised him. That is a story South Africa cannot but hate to love.
Sindane asked the police to help him trace his real, meaning white, family. That was his moment he came to public attention. A judicial inquiry was subsequently set up to investigate his origins. As to why a judicial inquiry, rather a straightforward police investigation, beats me.
The inquiry found that his real name was not Happy Sindane, but Abbey Mziyaye, son of Rina Mziyaye. That was not Sindane had hoped for, I suspect. Who really wants a poor black family, which is not even your real black family?
Rina Mziyaye had been a domestic worker to Henry Nick, who was the likely father. Mziyaye had left her son as a baby and he was raised and adopted by the Sindane. The mother’s whereabouts could not be traced. Henry Nick was never there from the start, not after the sex. He probably never even owned up at all. Reminds you of slave times and the era of colonial and apartheid Immortality Acts when white males would have sex with their maids – more like sexually violate – and enslave or abandon their offspring without even so much as a thank you for the bang. Read the archival records related to the charges, prosecutions and sentencing under the Immorality Act if you doubt me. It’s all there.
The storm of reports on Sindane’s murder state that he was killed on Easter Sunday, possibly over a bottle of brandy purchased at JZee Tavern in Tweefontein, Mpumalanga Province, where he had been drinking. The apparent manner of death was a blunt object, a stone to be precise. His body was found on Easter Monday by a passerby on piece of a rocky veld full of litter.
The crime writer and journalist Margie Orford also remarked about the unusualness of the media reporting so much on Sindane’s murder: ‘That the press remarked on this at all is unusual’, she wrote; ‘there are so many deaths like this every weekend. …Many will have been murdered: a knife in the belly, a bullet in the head or blunt-force trauma to the skull. Nearly all will be men – young, poor and black – caught in the cross-hairs of poverty and rage. These are rarely the bodies that matter.’
I wish the reports about Happy Sindane’s death implied that his life, and his cruel manner of death, actually mattered. But of course they don’t. I don’t believe this means that from now on we shall see a society that feels the lives of all young poor men actually matter, well, except when they rape and murder others, if that can be thought as mattering.
I think what reports on the death of Sindane show is, paradoxically, that we don’t care enough for young, poor black and coloured men. What the reports on Sindane underlined is that he was, is, a symptom of our society’s psychosocial malaise. The report on his life and death are symptom of the hegemonic white patriarchal racist traumatization that emerges in our repetition, in our replaying of the same story over and over again, if in slightly different guises. This was about our continued enchantment with race. There was, in addition, a knowingness that communicated, ‘you see what happens when you don’t stick to your race’, as though it would have saved the young man from such an unhappy end if he had been purely lack. In Sindane’s possibly unloved conception to his cruel demise also converged society’s attitude to poor young coloured and black men’s lives – the racialised fears and fascination with them, the pervasive indifference and criminalization of their lives. That attitude, in other words, remains fundamentally characterized by ideology of white patriarchal racial inequality.
In Sindane’s country, a white rich father is the surest way to a better death. Sindane intuitively knew this when he walked into that police station as a teenager. Even better, he knew that in this country we call home, a white rich father still means a much better life than the one he got.