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Offbeat – 12 July 2012

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Things seem to have changed now. I know that knives are still carried by a lot of people, but scanning the press leads me to the conclusion that there are too many guns around for knives to be a major feature of Namibia’s violent underbelly.

Once upon a time, in about 1989 and 1990, there were two different versions of Namibia. One of those versions was the place to be abandoned, filled with men in brown uniforms heading south and muttering into their moustaches about the doom that would be upon us. The other was the land of opportunity.
Glasnost, Namibian style, was a wonderful thing. Instead of being the lost tribe of Israel and trying (or being forced) to behave with appropriate dignity, a lot of the kids who might otherwise have been considering the time when they too would be able to grow moustaches as symbols of their maturity, headed off into the ‘townships’ to discover the other side of Namibia. The adventure was there and the grins were as wide as can be.
It was a wonderful time. If the relief of not being God’s chosen pink people was not enough, there was the knowledge that call-up was over and we could actually have a bit of fun without incurring the wrath of the police for being in the wrong place while not wearing a Caspir.
I think, in hindsight, everyone was happily confused.
There was a sense of lawlessness as well. For the formerly brainwashed kids, heading for the first time into the wild frontier, just on the other side of the colour line, there was admiration and excitement in the knowledge that communities and neighbourhoods could impose their own ways of doing things, their own laws and customs.
It had its dangerous side. One of the most startling things was the pervasiveness of the knife. In the desperation to be proletarian, anything but upright white boys with unhappy duties handed down from an intolerant, patriarchal God, a lot of the formerly brainwashed kids started picking up knife culture as well. Some of them became good at it.
Mercifully I can’t remember anyone dying. The fact that clubs did pat-down searches at the door probably contributed to this in no small measure.
Things seem to have changed now. I know that knives are still carried by a lot of people, but scanning the press leads me to the conclusion that there are too many guns around for knives to be a major feature of Namibia’s violent underbelly. What’s the point of bringing a knife to a gunfight?
Knives have occupied the position of the ‘Everyman’ weapon for thousands of years. Even during the Renaissance, aristocratic mathematicians used them to defend the honour of their theorems and proofs. That is how egalitarian the blade has been.
Is it possible to evolve to fear the knife as a weapon? Although the gun is far more deadly, there is something creepy about the idea of the sudden glint of a knife blade. Perhaps it is the result of thousands of years of fear. Or the common experience of cutting oneself and experiencing the pain using a knife intended for less lethal use in the kitchen. Accidentally shooting oneself is not a particularly common experience, so there is probably no way to compare the effect of a gun to a knife, at least on a practical basis.
In spite of the danger that it presents, the knife as a weapon, a device for obtaining things through violent means, has become an anachronism. This is the age of the gun. There is not a week that goes by without a report of someone fingering the safety catch as a prelude to solving problems in a monumentally stupid and insensitive way. Perhaps the banality of the gun is the reason why anachronistic yet gaudy knife crimes attract so much attention.
It used to be that the knife was a symbol of approaching maturity, given by a father to a son. That seems to have fallen away as well.
There is a certain economy to the thing. Guns are now a cheap and easy resource, a symbol of humanity’s progression. As more and more people obtain them, for better or for worse, there will be a need for brinkmanship. As newer, more advanced weapons become popular, they will become cheaper as well. Perhaps the gun will go the same way as the knife. What the next common weapons will be is one of those things we will just have to wait to find out.

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