RW Johnson, Times (UK), October 29, 2006
Durban — The Nobel literature laureate Nadine Gordimer has been attacked and locked in a storeroom by thieves who took cash and jewellery from the 82-year-old novelist at her Johannesburg home.
Gordimer was assaulted when she refused to hand over her wedding ring but did not sustain serious injuries, a police spokesman said. “The suspects then locked both Gordimer and her domestic worker in a storeroom and fled,” he said.
Gordimer was both brave and lucky when three men gained access to her house last Thursday, easily overpowering her and her maid. The men were unarmed and did not seriously assault either woman.
She was fortunate that her refusal to hand over her ring — a present from her late husband — resulted only in her and her servant being locked in a storeroom.
There have been frequent cases where thieves have tortured or killed their victims with hot clothes irons, knives and boiling water in order to get what they wanted — even when their victims have not provoked them by refusing them anything.
There is a grim irony to the attack, for Gordimer’s novels are all focused on the inhumanities of apartheid — with blacks always the victims, not, as in this case, the perpetrators.
Coming shortly after the news that two ANC cabinet ministers have also had their homes robbed it is a sharp reminder that nobody is immune from South Africa’s sky-high crime rate.
Gordimer is a national icon, a friend of Nelson Mandela and, unlike JM Coetzee, the country’s other Nobel literature laureate, who has emigrated to Australia, she has refused to leave.
For all these reasons, the fact that she has been robbed and assaulted at her home and during the day has triggered national outrage.
Gordimer, who won the Booker Prize in 1974 for her novel The Conservationist, was always a likely target. Thieves frequently target older people and she is known to be well off — she was left large sums by her family and by her husband, the art dealer Reinhold Cassirer, who died five years ago, in addition to her 1991 Nobel prize and large earnings from royalties.
Against the advice of some of her friends she has continued to live in her large, old Parktown house, rather than retreat to one of the new gated complexes, shielded by electrified wire, armed guards and check-out points through which all visitors must pass.
Parktown, once a highly fashionable suburb, is now a little too close to Johannesburg’s high-crime city centre for many tastes, and Gordimer, who has not availed herself of all the latest high-tech security equipment, lives alone, protected only by two old retainers.
In this case the thieves simply took what they had and left, though the maid had managed to press a panic button that summoned a private security company, which may have hurried them on their way.
The rest is only too familiar to Johannesburg residents. The security company, which promises instant armed response, took half an hour to arrive and the police admitted that nobody had been identified or arrested for the crime.
The police detection rate, even in much more serious cases, is seldom higher than 5%.
It is simply no match for the numerous, well-armed and determined criminals who often use modern automatic weapons and raid shopping centres, banks and other targets with military precision.