A family ravaged by crime

Published Jan 24, 2007


By Gill Gifford and Karyn Maughan

They look out at us, smiling, their eyes bright, as they pose for this happy family picture.

Yet every single member of this family has been traumatised by crime.

And not a single one of the family's attackers has been caught.

Debbi Talmage tells the family's remarkable story.

She spoke to The Star a week after President Thabo Mbeki stated that South Africa's crime problem was a matter of perception.

Crime was a problem, he said, but not a crisis.

Ask Debbi Talmage. She wants to know if her family's ordeal is normal. "Is my story unique, or is it like this for everyone?" she asked.

Two weeks ago, gunmen attacked Talmage, who lives in Kyalami with her husband and three daughters.

She was in her car just 60m from her family's secure complex with her daughter Demi and her neighbour's son.

The children, both aged five, saw the two gunmen rob Talmage of her jewellery.

By then other members of her family had already survived half a dozen criminal attacks.

"Now my little girl has nightmares about wolves chasing her down the street; for the first time, she won't sleep in her own room," Talmage told The Star this week.

"She asks me all the time: 'Mommy are the baddies coming back? Don't the baddies always come back?'"

Talmage said her family's first encounter with crime happened in 1994, when her father Dennis Polack was hijacked.

In 1999, her sister-in-law Tracey Talmage and her two children were abducted by armed hijackers. They had a lucky escape after their attackers crashed the car with them inside.

In 2000 Talmage's mother Sally Polack was mugged and her bag taken.

Then the family's crime ordeal intensified.

In September 2005 her brother Ricci Polack was held up and robbed after twice having his wife's car stolen. He has also been burgled 10 times.

"I am a bit paranoid, I'll be honest. It's difficult to trust people anymore," he said.

Ricci, a property developer who has been involved in the rejuvenation of inner-city Joburg for the last eight years, told The Star that he was still optimistic about South Africa's future.

"We are hitting rock bottom at the moment. It can only get better."

Talmage's sister Mandi Naude also narrowly escaped being hijacked in 2005.

But, while Talmage's story seems unbelievable, experts say she is not alone in her experience.

Wits Trauma Centre manager Nomfundo Mogapi said most of the cases it handled involved so-called "complex trauma" - where patients broke down after suffering multiple crime-related traumas.

"The patient experiences an initial trauma, such as rape, and tries to suppress it. They then experience another trauma, for instance a hijacking, and they suffer a mental breakdown."

The centre started off handling cases related to political violence, but it now deals primarily with criminal trauma cases.

"Criminal trauma cases are far more difficult to deal with because people cannot find any meaning or reason to what has happened to them.

"Finding meaning is a very important part of recovering," she said.

Mogapi said people's fears about crime - and the trauma they or their loved ones had suffered - had created a distrustful, irritable and easily angered national psyche.

Meanwhile a major survey conducted by Markinor and released last week revealed that only four out of 10 South Africans believe government is doing enough to curb crime.

The November 2006 survey among 3 500 South Africans from different social backgrounds, showed what Markinor director and political analyst Mari Harris described as "a significant drop in confidence, after two years during which there was an increase in the belief that our government is slowly making progress in the battle against crime".

"In fact, crime and unemployment are two of the 23 critical delivery areas in which government has consistently achieved less than a 'pass mark' over the years," she said.

"A fifth of adult South Africans are of the opinion that the country is becoming even less safe - and ANC supporters form a substantial part of this group," said Harris.

While crime statistics suggest that crime levels are dropping, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) researcher Antoinette Louw says South Africans' perceptions of crime are more important.

"Government's usual response is to say that statistics, although old, show that crime is going down.

"But that can't be used as a tool to keep the public happy.

"If there is a great deal of negative perception about crime and safety, people respond by leaving the country, take the law into own hands, increasingly criticise police and decrease their co-operation with the authorities," Louw said.

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