How a gangster found redemption
THE INNOCENCE OF GUILT: A True South African Story, by Reggie Karam. Reach Publishers, 2016. 137pp. R200
Reviewed by Günther Simmermacher
Karam never was one to pull punches. Growing up in Johannesburg’s Mayfair suburb, Karam and his family made liberal use of their fists to address problems. Mayfair was a tough place in the 1950s, where Reggie’s story picks up after the harrowing opening chapter which recalls the murder of the author’s brother in 1976.
The local Afrikaners’ disdain for the Lebanese would often be reciprocated through the medium of violence. A reputation was made: Don’t mess with the Karams.
Among the tough Karam brothers — two of them were successful boxers; one of them, Paul, the South African middleweight champion — Reggie is the only one to study. While studying accountancy he moonlights as a petty criminal and drug-user. It’s the beginning of an ever-escalating life of crime, violence and drug abuse.
Some of Karam’s anecdotes read like vignettes from mafia movies, such as when an unsuitable suitor for a younger sister is persuaded through a one-on-one fight to drop his pursuit. There are other entertaining stories — this book is by no means relentlessly depressing.
But the memoir’s focus is, of course, on the poisonous effects of a life of crime. How did Reggie, an educated young man and active footballer from a stable and devoutly Catholic family, turn into a gangster who would get to know the inside of jails?
Karam acknowledges his own stubborn vanity and misplaced loyalty to his partners in crime. Specifically, he ascribes the vicious cycle he was caught up in to the manipulative influences of the leader of his gang.
The story culminates in 1976 with the murder of his older brother Johnny, by people whom Reggie had brought into his brother’s life. It is here that Reggie’s life changes. But a new struggle begins: that of finding healing from the trauma of the murder.
The shooter, Tanse Leisher, a fellow Maronite Catholic, received a (later commuted) death sentence for the crime. But there is anger that the man who Karam believes set up the killing went free.
Priest enters the story
At this point Fr Clayton Jackson, parish priest of Turffontein, enters the story. The priest counselled both the Karam and Leisher families, urging forgiveness, acceptance and reconciliation. This finds a moving expression when Reggie and Tanse meet by chance years later, after the latter’s release from jail.
Tragically, Fr Jackson, the priest who set in motion all of this healing, was himself murdered in 1981, in particularly brutal circumstances.
Reggie Karam rebuilt his life, with marriage and family, a career and a renewed commitment to his Catholic faith. The latter received a jumpstart through his participation in the Alpha course.
The Innocence of Guilt reads like a catharsis, but it is also an absorbing oral history, a snapshot of a particular place and time.
So it is right that the conversational tone of Karam’s prose has been retained. Nonetheless, more rigorous editing of the narrative might have added coherence to confusing timelines. There also might have been value in teasing out greater details to some potentially fascinating storylines that are mentioned in passing.
Reggie Karam has experienced more than his share of tragedy, from losing his father at 11 to the murder of his brother and other distressing deaths in the family. He clearly also bears the burdens of his own destructive past.
A strong family, good friends and his Catholic faith have saved Reggie Karam. In the final words of the book, he issues a simple but powerful vote of gratitude: “Thank you, mercy and forgiveness.”
The Innocence of Guilt is available from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.