On a lazy summer’s night, a South African family drifted indoors after arriving home. A gunshot rang out and the evening flipped.
Gunmen materialized in the low light. A second shot, and Tracey Lomax saw her husband fall.
“You’re not the boss!” one of them kept yelling furiously at him.
Lomax didn’t betray her terror. Quite the opposite.
She was a liberal white lawyer, known for taking on pro bono work for poor blacks. Yet she found herself, instantly and uneasily, assuming the apartheid-era role of the “white madam”: calm, firm, in control and used to telling black people what to do, even if they had guns.
As the ordeal wore on, the most aggressive of the gunmen forced her into the master bedroom. “He threw me down on the bed and said, ‘If you don’t give me jewelry now, I’ll stick you.’ I knew he meant rape.” She replied firmly, “We don’t behave like that. We’re not savages.”
“I took his hand off my shoulder. I said, ‘No, we are not doing this.’ And I walked back into the other room.” She spoke to him as if addressing a child — or giving orders to a gardener, telling him to plant a shrub in this place, not that place.
But after that night five years ago, Lomax decided she didn’t want to be that person anymore.
“Your instinctive reaction is to lock your windows and recoil and yell, but if I’d gone that way I’d have ended up a very bitter person,” she said. “I started keeping my car window open when hawkers and beggars came up. I started greeting them and asking them how they were. I started reaching out to people of color in a way I hadn’t before.”
On that night, the racist system of apartheid had already been gone for 16 years. But the baggage of those years has lingered poisonously on.
After apartheid ended, South Africans segued into a comfortable compromise. Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress stepped back from its original socialist agenda — nationalizing the country’s assets — and accommodated white business, the necessary price to retain foreign investment and keep the economy grinding along. For 20 years, it seemed to work, despite glaring inequalities.
But with Mandela buried, angry student protests have erupted around the country, and a radical opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, has marched on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange calling for companies to be controlled by workers. In London, EFF leader Julius Malema told white businessmen that Mandela had sold out South Africa to rich white men.
“We are experiencing the slow death of the post-1994 dispensation and the painful birth of a new order,” a white columnist, Max du Preez, wrote last month. “There is going to be a Second Transition — it has already started and cannot be delayed.”
Racism remains so common that the South African Human Rights Commission deals with about 7,500 complaints of rights abuses a year, most related to race. Racist blogs referring to black South Africans as “things” or ascribing them with criminal tendencies are common.
Although most crime victims are black, South Africa’s high rate of violent crime is a focus for intense white anxiety.
And a violent home invasion robbery is a visceral nightmare of the predominantly white middle class. The Lomaxes’ rural district outside Johannesburg had seen dozens of horrifying attacks. A couple had been murdered. A woman had been raped in front of her 4-year-old son. People had been beaten and shot.
In court and in life, Lomax is a formidable adversary who soars with the adrenaline rush from battle. In 2006, when a smash-and-grab robber broke her car window and lunged for her laptop, she head-butted him and bit his hand until he fled.
Still, she had dreamed of a farm life: A horseback rider, she loved horses and wanted the freedom of her own small livery yard.
She and her husband, Roderick Nixon, and her daughter, Jaime, then 8, had a comfortable four-bedroom home on a small leased farm, renting out horse stables, with two grooms and a full-time housekeeper.
It was an enviable life in one of the most unequal societies on Earth. Talking about the night of the attack, Lomax said it showed her that something always has to give when privilege lives so close to deprivation.
On that night five years ago, it was her young daughter who finally convinced the gunmen there was no hidden money or guns, just the computers, TV, DVD player and stereo.
“Jaime said, ‘We’re broke,’” Lomax said. “They wanted guns. Jaime piped up, ‘My parents don’t have guns because they don’t believe in them.’”
In the end, they were calling Lomax “madam.” They put pillows on the floor to make her comfortable, before gently tying her up with her arms around her daughter. They called Jaime “the little madam.”
I was running through checklists in my head because it was all I could do. But by the time the police arrived later that night, I couldn’t remember a thing.
After the attack, Lomax at first wanted to pack up and leave the country forever, “but that was too easy an answer.” Within days, she and her family left the small farm. She was angry “without really knowing why I was angry.”
And she was tormented by the memory of how easily she had addressed her attackers from a position of reflexive white superiority.
The Lomaxes gave away or threw out most of their belongings and now live in a modest cottage with 11 dogs (including three Great Danes), six cats and two pigs. Wandering in through the gate past the bevy of potted herbs and flowers is like wading into a lake of friendly canines.
Lomax sat with her husband — unharmed in the attack, it turned out — and daughter at an outdoor table in the yard as a German shepherd (bought for security) snuggled under the table. The Jack Russells yapped at the dogs next door.
Jaime brought cookies and tea, chiming in and adding to the story. Occasionally, Lomax reached out to touch her husband. But he was quiet as she spoke. He didn’t embellish the story, although he had lived through it too.
During the attack, he had lain tied up, memorizing every detail of the attackers’ appearances.
“I was running through checklists in my head because it was all I could do. But by the time the police arrived later that night, I couldn’t remember a thing. It was a complete blank,” he said in a later interview.
In one case, she represented four homeless black men who outraged a wealthy white woman by camping on her land as they sorted recyclables to sell for a few cents. Lomax managed to defuse the woman’s anger through mediation.
Why didn’t they go through the garbage in their own houses, the woman demanded to know at first. But she became less combative when they told her they had no place of their own.
Lomax canvassed politicians to join an Equality Court case against racism and was part of a group, Citizens4Marikana, that successfully campaigned for legal aid for the families of 34 striking platinum miners shot dead by police in 2012. She assisted students arrested during the recent nationwide protests and is planning a legal effort to get companies that benefited from apartheid to acknowledge this and pay recompense.
The slow burn of her recovery after the attack is over. She’s on fire, ready for change.
“There’s no point in having this wonderful constitutional democracy,” she said, “if we allow traditional white capital to keep doing business the way it always has.”
When Lomax went public with a recent article describing how the attack helped her to see her “white privilege” for the first time, it elicited a few supportive comments and hundreds of scathing ones, mainly from white males.
“It happened to me too,” wrote one reader, John Weavind. “I managed to get to my gun and I shot the lot … dead. I felt much better afterwards.”
The attack opened Lomax’s eyes to the advantages she had always had, but it also convinced her that the family belongings and big house weren’t what mattered. As the attackers demanded gold during the attack, Lomax put her arms around her man and her child.
“I said, ‘This is all the gold I have and you can’t have it.’”
There’s no point in having this wonderful constitutional democracy ... if we allow traditional white capital to keep doing business the way it always has.
It took her five years to recover. Ask her whether she’s happy in her small house with her chaotic mob of dogs, and she shrugs, not quite sure.
But at least she knows she’ll never be the white madam again.
After the men were caught, there was a police lineup. They were jailed for life. She didn’t feel relieved or victorious, but sad.
“I think about how what drew us together that night was a shared humanity, a spark of something we recognized and respected in one another despite the fact that we were meant to be adversaries,” she said.
But mainly, she felt grateful to them, “for holding up a mirror to my soul and showing me the person I no longer wanted to be.”
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