The Plank

Murder On The Veld


In the grand scheme of things, the murder of David Rattray last week was no different from the spate of senseless killings that have occurred in South Africa over the past decade. Rattray, a world-famous historian and tour guide in the breathtaking Kwa-Zulu Natal Midlands, was shot and killed in his home last Friday. There seems to have been no apparent motive for the crime; whereas many are murdered in the Beloved Country for their car or their cell phone, nothing was stolen from the Rattray home.

I had the good fortune of meeting Rattray in the spring of 2002. The man was a storyteller the likes of which I--and many others--had not seen nor will likely ever see again. At an evening campfire I heard Rattray deliver a speech he had delivered countless times: a layman's history of the land in which he lived, specifically, the crucial events of the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. Never before have I been so riveted by a speaker--not Bill Clinton, nor Barack Obama, both of whom I have seen speak. He gave chills in the same way that great political oratory or a show-stopping musical number sometimes does. He even once brought the emotionally bereft Prince Charles to tears, no small task. Over his career he regaled thousands, fellow countrymen and curious travelers alike, in the greatest battles of that war, namely Isandlawa and Rorke's Drift, the latter in which a mere 139 British soldiers defended their garrison against some 4,000 Zulu warriors, in turn winning 11 Victoria Crosses. This was the most that had ever been awarded for a single battle in the history of the British Empire. These historic episodes are depicted in the 1964 film Zulu, starring Michael Caine. Rattray was sometimes referred to as a "white Zulu" and was an exemplar of racial reconciliation; a senior African National Congress official said that Rattray "restored the dignity of the Zulu people and their history, and had people spellbound with his intimate knowledge of the Anglo-Zulu war."

We hear much about the crime in South Africa and how unbearable it has become. Among whites it is the common topic of conversation, as unifying a part of the national experience as are humiliating episodes of casual racism for blacks in contemporary America (though black South Africans are just as much, if not more, the victims of crime as are whites). It is tempting for many of South Africa's cheerleaders in the West (of which I count myself as one), so intoxicated in the language of the South African "miracle" and the "Rainbow Nation," to wish these fears away by labeling those who talk of crime as paranoid or cynical; some in the ANC have rudely encouraged those who complain of crime to leave the country. Yes, South Africa has made great strides. In my extensive travels I never once encountered criminal behavior. Yet the problem is real, and the murder of a man one has met and who invigorated a love for a country and its history gives the crisis a visceral impact that statistics and news stories cannot muster.

Rattray's death was noted in the Times of London, the paper of record for obituaries, if that gives some sense of his international renown.

David Rattray, R.I.P

--James Kirchick

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