Covering the murder trial in Piet Retief turned into a strange daydream shot through with hatred, incompetence, and old-fashioned gullibility.
There are two versions of how Zenzele and Mgcini Coka died on 9 April, but there was only one crowd outside the bail hearings of those the state has accused of the crime. The ANC and EFF demonstrations looked separate, but only for about ten minutes; they merged after the slogan ‘down with the farmer’ went through a few loud speakers.
The substance of the first day’s bail hearing can be summarized as follows. The prosecution alleges that there is a ‘schedule 6’ offence in play (worse than ‘schedule 5’ murder), meaning that murder was committed pursuant to a ‘conspiracy’ or ‘syndicate’ operating with ‘common purpose’. This means, in laymen’s terms, that the farmers can be thought of as having acted as a gang (a boer-gang) and that the accused should therefore only be allowed bail in extraordinary circumstances. The defence has rejected this, but the matter could not be fully heard yesterday.
The five accused – farmers Daniel Malan, Cornelius Greyling, Othard Klingenberg, Ignatius Steynberg, and farm manager Zenzele Yende – were back in court today. They face charges of murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, and defeating the ends of justice.
Before the hearing began there was excitement outside in the form of rocks being thrown at police and journalists across a barbed wire barricade from among the crowd holding placards condemning ‘1652’ people [white South Africans]; ‘inyama’ which technically means ‘flesh’ but is a parochial term for white South Africans; ‘umlungu’ whose technical meaning is debated but means white person; and ‘amabhunu’, which again can mean all farmers or mean only white farmers, depending on context.
The other chief targets were ‘amaphoisa’, the police, and the DA. The crowd also pulled barbed wire into itself, a curious point for later reflection.
Even after the proceedings began, court testimony was punctuated by an occasional flash-bang detonation outside, though in the absence of rocks there was a period between 1pm and 2pm when (emptied) beer bottles became the preferred means of political expression, striking the tarmac with percussive hisses while music blared through amped speakers. After the court adjourned, the ‘DJ’ played a happy tune, warming up a speech that consisted of the chant ‘We are angry until further notice’ on repeat.
At this point the story changes gear as your reporter unfortunately became part of its regression. What comes next suggests that the IRR’s suspicion that while many SAPS are brave guardians who literally held the bodyline to keep the peace in Mkhondo, many are not.
On leaving the court shortly after 2pm, I wanted to find the police liaison officer (other cops will not talk to journalists in public) to ascertain a key fact of the day. Police outside the courthouse directed me to Captain Masuku, the local communications chief, who ‘will be here in five minutes’. Half an hour later he had not arrived, and I was told to look for someone with three stars on his shoulder, a captain, in the course of which I passed the now diminished crowd of protesters, some of whom called me ‘umlungu’, ‘Verwoerd’, and ‘vokken van Riebeek’.
The entire situation had changed gear, since most of the crowd and some of the police had left, the bail hearing not having reached a conclusion, and complacency was setting in. It was now 2.33pm, and on the other side of the street was this:
I found Captain Msiza (perched at the corner in the photo above), but he refused to offer help, eventually telling me, ‘You are in an island’.
Another officer nearby, overhearing our conversation, helpfully gave me a phone number; I called the number and was told Captain Masuku had already left the police station to find me at the court, which is two blocks away, so he should be ‘less than five minutes away’. Almost half an hour later, he had still not arrived, so I approached Captain Gwebu on the side of the road, again attracted by the three stars, who witlessly sent me into a near death trap.
Captain Gwebu told me to go and find Captain Masuku at a Total garage three blocks down the road. I arrived at the garage and saw no police. Instead there were protesters, many in ANC- and EFF-branded attire, one of whom, in a plain green shirt, shouted ‘Umlungu’ at me repeatedly while staring me down. As I turned the car around, he kicked a tire and shouted ‘Umlungu, vok off’.
Another young man ran from the front, hurling a rock at me full tilt, and the last thing I heard before the smash was ‘Umlungu ngizokubulala’ [white person, I will kill you]. I heard another thud on the roof.
It was surreal. I left the Total garage quickly, distinctly irritated. At this stage I had glass sprayed over my lunch in the car, people chasing me from behind who said they wanted me dead, and several more interviews to do in the day, including with Captain Masuku, conspicuous by his absence at the very the place I had been sent to find him. I went back to the courthouse to tell Captain Gwebu what had happened so that he might go and investigate, and to finish my job.
Captain Gwebu was not impressed into action, nor were any of his colleagues. I was, however, told that a new, higher-ranking liaison officer had arrived from out of town. So, finally, I interviewed Colonel Mdhluli, asking the simple question about whether the police violated a court order that day, on which you will receive a later report, but not before giving eNCA the chance to finish their interview with the colonel.
Thereafter, I went to the police station to report the incident formally. There I saw two other vehicles that had been damaged by stone-throwers, and, having found their owners, discovered that their encounters with lawlessness had also occurred while driving past the same Total garage, a route on which one had been directed by police.
Shortly before 4pm, a third motorist arrived who had been attacked in the same way at the same place. This woman was visibly shaken, and teary. She struggled to control her voice as she asked me where to go to report the incident. She made phone calls in German and then told me that had she not installed extra-strength windows, she would now be dead. ‘The hatred, I couldn’t believe the hatred,’ she said, over and over.
Since a racial slur was yelled at me when the IRR car was struck, I should add that all the others (including those whose attacks I have reviewed on video but who did not go to the police station) were also white. In addition, I saw several black motorists around the Total garage who were not attacked.
Given the facts to hand, it stands to reason that the car attacks were driven by racism. This is not to say that the ideology of hate being expressed by brute force only affects white people.
After filing her report, the woman (who allowed photos to be taken of her car, but asked not to be identified) requested a police escort to the nearest repair shop. The police merely offered to give her directions. She opted, more wisely than I had, to ignore these directions and drive another four hours home in her damaged vehicle.
I tried to get my vehicle repaired, but found businesses were closed, as were restaurants and most else besides. My mind flashed back to one of the young women in the photograph below – who also asked not to be named, but wanted her picture taken – who works at a nearby funeral home. She had said: ‘You must be scared of these people. We are scared.’
It would be a mistake to think that there are only victims of one colour, but it would also be mistake to overlook the method in the mob’s madness. Jurgen Gevers had posted days before that the Mkhondo Local Municipality Facebook official account should not have condemned the accused before all the facts of the Coka brothers’ deaths had been established. For this he was targeted on Facebook, and then his butchery was the only reported business to be vandalized on the day the bail hearings started – close to where the IRR car’s windscreen was smashed.
The reason why I had been sent to the Total garage to seek out Captain Masuku was that he had gone there to investigate a stabbing, allegedly by the protesters opposing the granting of bail to the five accused. The stabbed individual, not named by police, was reportedly in hospital in a serious condition.
Our good fortune, those of us in cars, was having a protective shell against the brute force of violent political expression. The man on foot lacked that.
Whether the stabbing victim will live is an open question. Whether his attack will be investigated thoroughly, including by reference to any CCTV footage that may be captured at that Total garage, is an open question too. There were police and witnesses all around, far more than at the death of the Coka brothers, but by late yesterday, no arrest had been recorded.
My own fault in this matter is gullibility. When Captain Gwebu told me go and find Captain Masuku at the Total garage, I had asked, ‘What is the nature of the situation?’ He replied that Captain Masuku was investigating this stabbing, and that I should go and find him there.
‘Surely’, I assumed, this means there is a neat yellow-and-black police tape around the scene and that police officers are there, forensic tests are being done for blood and fingerprints, and witnesses are being interviewed. ‘Surely’, I assumed, I would be safe on arrival. ‘Surely’, I assumed, Captain Gwebu would only send me there if the situation had calmed down to the point that Captain Masuku would have a minute to spare for a journalist.
‘I am playing nicely by the rules,’ I had told Captain Gwebu, ‘not trying to interview anyone except the official liaison. Please can you help me play by the rules too.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, and then told me again to go to the Total garage. ‘Surely’ that meant it would be okay?
These were ridiculous assumptions, given the context.
Captain Gwebu, so far as I could tell, had no ill intent. Rather, he provided an incompetent directive. The stone-throwers and stabbers provided hatred in force.
Between these cardinal points – foolish gullibility, incompetence, and hatred – a political map could be drawn that covers more than the three blocks between the Total garage and the magistrates court in Piet Retief. Our good fortune is the chance to learn a lesson from the experience. Not everyone has the chance.
Post-script: Last night, 1 500 bales were burnt near the farm where the Coka brothers died. Estimated value lost: R750 000. [Photo supplied to Daily Friend]