Another soul… gone too soon

Hannah Cornelius

This is difficult to write.

Because the murder of Hannah Cornelius induces so many shades of pain. The agonies experienced by a father, a mother, a brother, a neighbour, a fellow-student, a citizen of the Cape Winelands, a South African.

Sometimes, the multiple strains of pain find a common chorus.

Writing this, the sound that fills the air, for me, is ominous guitar chords of Johnny Cash’s When the Man comes around. It’s a song of revenge.

I heard this song involuntarily, as a deep anger welled. Rage, at the news of the hijacking on Friday May 26, as the new moon rose. Torment, imagining Hannah’s terror, as she was driven up the R44, to an isolated roadside.

Hannah’s was not the only tragic death this month, but something struck a chord.

I was reminded of the killing, many years ago, of a Cape Town yachtsman, murdered while on a family holiday in the Transkei, on New Year’s Eve, 2014.

At the time, I wrote of Rob Meek’s murder, and the folly of revenge.

This was the column:

The New Year was barely a minute old. Rob Meek was with his family, on whom he doted. He was “a gentle giant”, “a peacekeeper”.

The very fact that his surname was “Meek” seemed to make his killing represent all that is evil. The contrast between “the meek who shall inherit the eart * ”, and those who took his life.

For many, Johnny Cash’s promise of accountability, in his song, seems to represent the only hope of justice. For even if we accept it would be wrong to hunt Meek’s killers down, and slay them in his name, Cash’s song promises revenge still, by an even higher power, who says “vengeance is mine, and I will repay”.

In the past weeks, many Christmas messages carried this too – amidst the joy and goodwill to men. The promise of Judgment Day. A sermon I heard carried the words “army”, “sword”, “slaying”. Strong, militaristic, retributive terms. And it’s not only in some Christian vocabularies that one hears this, but many religions, social and political discourses the world over. The clamour for revenge crosses most human divides.

When news broke of Meek’s murder, one could be forgiven for feeling a burning desire for his killers to “burn in hell”, one way or another.

But then I recalled another few lines, this time Samuel L Jackson, from the film Pulp Fiction.

He’s an assassin, holding up a seriously bad guy. But, looking deep within himself, it dawns on him that maybe he, too, is in equal need of salvation.

And so it is with Meek’s killers. As powerfully as one may want vengeance sown upon them, so we need to accept that these men are already in hell.

To have shot Meek in cold blood means they have already deteriorated so tragically far from their original human condition. Once, they were happy, playful kids, as all children once were, or hopeful teens, or ambitious young men. Yet look at them now, look at what they were capable of, whoever they are.

Meek has left us. His family are in our prayers, as they struggle with spiralling grief.

And some of us are praying for revenge.

But it’s his killers who need our prayers most. For it is they who are already truly, deeply, eternally damned.

And so it is with the killers who have now terrorised Stellenbosch.

RIP Hannah Cornelius, May 27, 2017.