CARPING POINT: The perils of life in South Africa is the stuff of comic books and pulp fiction, but it’s happening in real time and in real life; a Wild West that makes the original look insipid by comparison, writes Kevin Ritchie.
THE SHOOT-OUT at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, is a staple of westerns. It’s the most famous of all the shoot-outs in the US’s Wild West. Hollywood has made eight films about it including two in the 1990s: ‘Tombstone’, with Kurt Russel, in 1993 and ‘Wyatt Earp’, starring Kevin Costner, in 1994.
It’s amazing to think the gun battle lasted only 90 seconds. At the end, three people lay dead; all outlaws. There are many other violent tales from the Wild West; bank robbers and hoodlums like Billy the Kid. There have been about 20 full-length films made of him. Billy the Kid might have killed 20 men before he was 21, but he never did it all in one go.
Last Friday, the Hawks raided a cash-in-transit gang base in Makhado, Limpopo. A fierce 90-minute gun battle erupted. At the end, 19 suspects were dead, two of them women. Police officer Lieutenant-Colonel Joe Coetzer was wounded not once but twice in the process. The first time hit the remaining three fingers on his “gun hand”. He’d lost the thumb and one other in a previous crime-fighting mission years ago. Undeterred, he called for a medic, got bandaged up and went back in.
The second wound was to his leg, apparently from an AK47 shot through a garage door. The damage was such that Coetzer had to be airlifted to hospital for urgent surgery to save his life. Doctors had to amputate his right leg above the knee though.
Most people would have resettled in Kakamas after a first gunshot wound, never mind losing two fingers. But Coetzer obviously wasn’t like that. He’s a SAPS Special Task Force veteran, a unit that was always steeped in mystique but is fast becoming cloaked in awe, thanks to Coetzee’s courage and tenacity and those of internet sensation and fellow former “Takie” Leo Prinsloo who dodged cash-in-transit robbers two years ago.
It is the stuff of comic books and pulp fiction, but it’s happening in real time and in real life; a Wild West that makes the original look insipid by comparison.
It is not normal to have gangs of criminals operating brazenly, whether in luxury suburban villas or in township ghettos, armed to the teeth. It is not normal for cash-in-transit vans to be viewed as piggy banks and bumped off highways by hijacked cars and their safe doors blown open with explosives in broad daylight. It is not normal to have to expect our police officers to try to effect an arrest against the kind of odds normally only battle-hardened soldiers would face.
But what is truly not normal is the fact that a story like this is just part of the news cycle – it’s the South African story fighting for space amid slum infernos that claim scores of lives, venal politicians trapped in pathological lies, tenderpreneurs tendering like Jehovah’s Witnesses on tik and load shedding sitting at Stage 6.
This is our normal. There probably won’t even be a movie made – because no one else would believe it.
* Kevin Ritchie is a seasoned former newspaper editor and current media consultant. He writes the weekly Carping Point column.