It’s not about the process – it’s about my dad

Review: Vivien Horler

Unforgiven, by Liz McGregor – face to face with my father’s killer (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

A murder trial is not about the victim. He or she is simply the backdrop to a contest between state and accused, each trying to assert the supremacy of its own narrative.

Or, as journalist and writer Liz McGregor puts it later in this searingly honest, harrowing and gripping memoir: “The offender’s deeds are seen as a crime against the laws of the state, and are therefore a matter between legal professionals and the state. The victim is merely collateral.”

The victim in this case was her beloved father, and the official view wasn’t good enough for McGregor. Robin McGregor was central to her life and that of her four siblings, and she was determined to restore him to the centre of the narrative. She also wanted to ask the man convicted of her father’s death: why, and what happened that night?

And so she embarked on a years’ long mission to meet the killer in Voorberg Prison near Porterville and pose these questions to him.

On August 9, 2008, the family got together for what they had no idea would be the last time. They had gathered to bury McGregor’s mother’s ashes in the grounds of Christchurch in Constantia.

Then went on to have lunch at Groot Constantia, later watching a rugby match. The day had started off tearfully, but evolved into what McGregor calls “a slow, gentle afternoon”.

Two days later, between 10pm and midnight, Robin McGregor was stabbed more than 20 times in his home in Tulbagh. Two safes were stolen along with two firearms, cash, Robin’s Mercedes and a Nikon camera.

Robin, 79, the publisher of the successful series Who Owns Whom, had recently had his home renovated by a contractor based in nearby Saron, and it is thought information about his safes might have been passed to people in the area.

Two arrests were rapidly made, one of a man called Eyes who was a member of the 28s gang and ran a tik den in Bellville, and the other a Saron welder called Clive Thomas who was found in possession of the Mercedes and the camera. Robin’s blood was also soaked into Thomas’s sock.

Thomas was a slippery accused, and Western Cape High Court judge Nathan Erasmus said he could not remember when he last came across a witness who changed his story so glibly every time new evidence challenged his story.

He also tells Thomas: “There is something you aren’t telling us.”

The killing devastated McGregor’s family, and they all reacted differently. For McGregor herself, it took the form of wanting to find out everything she could about Thomas, the Numbers gangs, Tulbagh, Saron, and South Africa’s own power-skewed, miserable history.

The murder – and later, an unrelated physical assault on McGregor in Sea Point – destroyed her sense of security. She felt as though there was a potential threat around every corner; anyone in a hoodie was to be feared.

The desire to meet Thomas and confront him became an obsession. “It feels like taking control of a process that, for years, has made me feel increasingly powerless.”

But you can’t just pop into a prison at visiting time and meet the man who killed your father – there is a long process that involves, among things, Thomas’s agreement to the meeting.

McGregor undertook the extended painful journey, which included the writing of this memoir.

McGregor is not naïve. She worked as a journalist both in this country and on the Guardian in London for years. She knows what is going on. But her healing work after her father’s murder gave her new insights.

“I have become increasingly aware of the shadow world that underlies our seemingly neat and ordered one. When I eat out at a restaurant, with the sun on my back… I think about the gangs blackmailing the owner for protection money.” There is the sense that instead of a firm ground beneath our feet, we are treading on tissue paper.

So was it worth it? She says her answer is an unequivocal yes. “It meant shining a light into a dark corner where monsters lurked and finding a damaged, frightened man. More than that… it gave me an insight into the underground forces that fracture and warp our country.

“But it also frightened me. Because now I see how the violence upon which this country was founded still permeates and defines it.”

This memoir is absorbing, thoughtful and thoroughly worth reading.




One thought on “It’s not about the process – it’s about my dad

  1. David Bristow

    Yo! Brave woman. I think I would pay to have the perps injured in jail if a loved one of mine was hurt.


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