JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Gaby Burgmer calls her home a “paradise,” even though it is a place where she has endured the grief of two horrific crimes.
Her father, Franz Richter, was murdered here at the Heia Safari game lodge in 2007 while on his way to pay the local staff. The apparent motive was robbery.
And in April, Burgmer’s ex-husband and business partner, Paul Schulte was shot and killed, apparently ambushed as he returned home.
It is the story of one South African family’s determination to stay in the country notwithstanding a wave of violent crime.
Burgmer, who is white, pledges to stay put with her family.
“You see the beauty here? This is Africa,” Burgmer said, waving her outstretched arm, while standing on one of the oldest man-made dams on the continent and gazing out over a huge lake. “I’m born here, I’m just as African as anybody else.”
Exotic birds fly by around her, and the sun glistens off the water.
Burgmer is a passionate woman, and extremely proud of Heia Safari.
It’s about 45 minutes from Johannesburg near a town called Muldersdrift – a tourist area, full of wedding and event venues near the “Cradle of Humankind” which is a World Heritage Site and is home to some of the world’s oldest human ancestor fossils.
Burgmer’s father built the lodge when he came to South Africa in the 1950s from Romania, starting with next to nothing. It is a place where wildebeest, giraffe and springbok roam free, sharing the expansive grounds with the guests.
The zebra drink from the chlorinated swimming pool.
“It makes their eyes sparkle,“ Burgemer chuckled. “Don’t stand behind them,” she warned. “They kick.”
But she became serious when talking about what has befallen her family.
“It’s a very sad tragedy that has happened, but it has actually made me a lot stronger,” she said, sitting next to her daughter, Bianca Rogers, who has lost her father and grandfather.
“I’m not throwing in the towel, and I will never ever desert,” Burgmer added, her voice heavy with emotion.
South Africa’s crime problem continues to be one of the country’s biggest challenges.
Perhaps the most worrisome crimes here are confrontational: home invasions, car-jackings and murder.
According to the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, overall crime is down, but the murder rate is still four times higher than the international average.
There were still almost 16,000 murders in South Africa last year, compared to 12,664 homicide victims recorded by the FBI in the U.S. during 2011 – a country with more than six times as many people.
“The government must realize it is time to take responsibility, and that they have the power to do something,” Rogers said. “It is everywhere in our country that we have a crime problem.”
Muldersdrift has formed its own citizens watch group that meets regularly with local police to press for more protection. That follows a series of recent violent crimes that include the fatal shooting of a 13-year-old girl last year. Residents have complained they feel “under siege.”
“Hopefully, we can make a difference and improve things for all of us, “ Burgmer said. “That’s why I’m talking to the world.”
Several people were arrested, tried and convicted in the death of her father. The investigation of her ex-husband’s death continues. “Unfortunately, no news or leads yet,” she said recently.
“My father had a vision to create something that represents Africa,” Burgmer said as she drove down a dirt road leading to the edge of the lake at the lodge. Giraffe, impala and springbok were grazing under a brilliant afternoon sun.
She paused the vehicle and reached for a container in the back seat full of food for the animals. She lifted it outside the car above her head so the giraffes could bend their long necks down and eat from her hand.
“There’s no way I will ever capitulate and go.”