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My friend Robbie’s always had a bit of a thing about guns. In a country like South Africa this is difficult to avoid. A murder rate of roughly four hundred a week and a rape every 26 seconds concentrates the mind. Since we got our freedom in 1994 we’ve had more than 270,000 murders. Once a government fails that badly to provide law and order any old Hobbesian will tell you that the social contract no longer applies. Anyway, discussions with Robbie soon revolved around whether a .38 or a 9mm parabellum was the better bet. Knowing nothing about all this, I opted for a .38 lent me by a dear old Jewish Communist lady who said: look, I always carried it but I never fired it. Other friends said there’s nothing like a shotgun. Just the sound of someone loading it and cocking it will freak out most burglars. It can shoot right through doors, after all.

Robbie said: you’ll be OK with the .38. Make sure you fire first and aim for the chest, no fancy bullshit about aiming for the head or shooting the gun out of their hands: leave that to the Westerns. But I was hopeless, left the thing on the back seat of the car where the Zulu matrons I’d given a lift to complained gently about having to sit on it. Then, when I did carry it, feeling nervous in a war-torn squatter camp, I found myself outgunned by a drugged-up 15-year-old ANC cadre with an AK-47. Alarmed by his glazed-over eyes, I disarmed and asked, in friendly fashion, where he’d been trained. You know better than to ask that, he said, bringing the Kalashnikov right up to my chin.

Robbie’s daughter, Jackie, is a pretty young woman with three kids and a husband vaguely in the background. One day she told Robbie that, waiting in a supermarket queue, the guy behind her, one Geoff, asked her whether she wouldn’t prefer to be up in the sky. She said, how’d you mean, and he told her he flew a light plane which was his pride and joy. She said, oh how wonderful, whereupon Geoff offered to take her up in it. Robbie said: hang on, what’s his angle, does he fancy you? Jackie, feeling oppressed by housewifery, said: oh hell, I’ve no reason to think so. And I’ve always wanted to go up in a small plane. And she did. Absolutely wonderful, looping around and flying low over the breakers so you could see all the sharks and dolphins through the translucent blue-green sea.

She herself arrived home black and blue. Geoff had driven her back, made a pass at her and, when she refused it, beaten the hell out of her. Did he rape you, Robbie asked. No, she said, but he did say that if I told anyone or tried to go to law, he would come and kill me and the kids. I believe what he said about killing the kids, she said. There’s no knowing what a guy like that might do. He’s got a gun, he pointed it at me to make his point.

Bloody hell, Robbie said. South Africa is a democracy now. Gender rights. Human rights. Equality. All that. You have to go to law. This guy ought to go down for five years, maybe eight. He must have done this to countless other women and he’s only going to do it to more. Well, I know that, Jackie said, he even told me about it. He warned me that not one of them had ever dared complain. So I don’t want to go to law. He’ll kill my babies.

Robbie kept on at her until finally, very reluctantly, she took her story to a lawyer and it went to court. Even in court this guy made threatening gestures at her, repeatedly drawing his finger across his throat and pointing his fingers as if they were a pistol. Jackie was very brave, gave her evidence, showed her remaining bruises. The judge, a new political appointee, kept asking what length skirt she’d been wearing on the day. Same as now, Jackie said, about an inch above the knee. Enough to show you’ve got nice legs, the judge said. You were tempting this man. No wonder he was upset. I fine him R200 (£14). Geoff grinned like a demon, drew his finger across his throat again and cocked his fingers like a pistol. Jackie was petrified. He’s coming to kill me and my babies, she said.

We had to get her some protection. I’m going to hire a security guard to stand outside her house at night, Robbie said. He found a nice young poor white Afrikaner called Rian. Not too bright but well armed and wearing the bullet-proof vest normal in such work. After three weeks he said he was sure he’d seen Geoff skulking in the bushes some nights, but Robbie couldn’t afford to employ him any longer. Rian, who had taken a shine to Jackie, was distressed. We can’t just leave you unprotected. This bastard is serious and nasty and he’s right there in the bushes. Why don’t you let me take him out for you? You mean kill him, Jackie asked. Sure. Of course, I’d do it privately, nothing to do with the security company. It’ll be easy. I wouldn’t do it on your property. I can find his address, go there and it’s done. Finish and klaar. How much would it cost, Jackie asked. R10,000 (£700), Rian said. That’s a lot of money, Jackie said. I can’t afford that. We could work out an installment plan, Rian said.

Jackie asked her dad what he thought about this proposal for a hire-purchase hit. It’s a lousy idea, Robbie said. It’s too expensive, but in any case Rian is a complete amateur. He’s never done this sort of work before. Chances are he’d muck it up or the truth would somehow come out. He might even get drunk and boast about it to his friends. Bugger that. I’ll fix this bastard myself. So Robbie got out his old shotgun and bird pellets and also his 9mm parabellum, and slept on Jackie’s verandah for the next couple of weeks. What if you kill him, I asked. I reckon protecting my daughter and grandchildren is a pretty good defence, Robbie said. But hell, I’m 77. If they want to put me in jail, they can. Whenever he thought he saw any movement in the bushes he would blast it. One night there was a sharp cry and a shadowy figure ran off, limping badly. If that’s someone innocent they’re bound to go to the police, Robbie said. If it was Geoff, he won’t dare. Sure enough there was silence. He ain’t coming back, Robbie said. He’ll be picking out birdshot for months.

I suppose that’s the only thing that sort of psychopath understands, Jackie said. Bloody rapist. But you said he didn’t rape you, said Robbie. Of course he raped me, Dad. But I couldn’t tell you then: I knew you’d want to kill him.

Too bloody right, I would have, Robbie said. If I’d known I’d have finished him off with the parabellum. But I guess we have to settle for the birdshot. If the courts were any use they might even think it was fair.

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