Where abuses are proved to have occurred, justice must be pursued; victims deserve no less, and society can afford no less.

Commenting on a case that is before the courts is something to be undertaken with reservations. Assumptions that seemed solid or analyses that seemed incontrovertible may take on an entirely different appearance as evidence and arguments unfold.

At times, though, the issues raised make it appropriate to comment before the legal process has reached its conclusion. One such is a case before the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court.

The background, as reported, is as follows: in September 2017, a group of four children had entered a game farm near Bronkhorstspruit, apparently in pursuit of their dogs. There they claim to have heard gunshots and to have encountered the farm owner, Johannes Potgieter, and one of his employees, Hendrick Dumas. While three of the party were able to escape, the fourth, then a nine-year old girl (who has not been named publicly) was seized by the men, struck and then tied to a tree.

‘They tied me to the tree with the handcuffs,’ she said, ‘He then slapped me again. The other man then put the gun on my forehead and threatened that if we ever come again they are going to kill us. I was untied and told to run. After that they shot at me while I ran.’

A medical examination revealed physical injuries, and she appears to have suffered considerable psychological trauma.

Potgieter and Dumas claimed that they suspected the children of having come to poach springbok, and that they detained the child to question her. They have denied assaulting her.

The description of what is alleged to have transpired is chilling. For good reasons, the mistreatment of a child in this way evokes particular revulsion. Not only is what was allegedly done to her in itself sickening, but these actions are a perversion of a more-or-less universal morality (at least in theory) that enjoins adults to care for and protect children.

All of which demands condemnation, forthright and absolute.

We South Africans are sometimes given to rationalising things with reference to the hardships of the environment around us. It is true that poaching is a very real problem for farmers and that security can be a life-or-death issue. This can in no way justify what is alleged to have taken place.  

It is also the sort of thing that drives racial and inter-communal animosity. It feeds into the narrative – consciously driven in some political quarters – of the country’s farmers as a wellspring of brutality and all that is repellent in the country. This is deeply destructive.

The case must run its course in court. The state has few duties as important or as sacrosanct as protecting the security of those under its authority, and ensuring that those who have threatened it are suitably punished for so doing.

Equally, it is important to be vigilant against the extrapolation of this case for political advantage. Rightly, the vast majority of people in the country will be repelled by it. Inasmuch as some might see this as reflecting on the farming community, there is nothing to suggest that farmers would be any less appalled than others.

As Agri-SA president Dan Kriek remarked to the IRR: ‘Agri-SA will not defend the indefensible.’

In other words, outrage is natural, and justice must be pursued on the basis of law and in line with evidence. The little girl in this case deserves no less. Society as a whole can afford no less.

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.

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Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.