BIG READ: Justice in the shadows … the lethargy gripping our courts
Two men were killed, a community was torn apart — and it took four years for a verdict to be delivered
What does justice look like, up close, here in SA?
I have spent the past four and a half years exploring that question by following one isolated case of alleged double murder — a case that tore through a tightly woven community in the Free State, prompting racial tensions, broken marriages, attempted suicide and a bitterly contested and complicated trial.
The short answer is that SA justice looks slow. Miserably, maddeningly, impossibly, expensively slow. The sort of slow that makes you understand, all too easily, how it can be that Jacob Zuma is still sitting cheerfully at home, hunting for spies and poisoners behind every bush.
The longer answer is something I’m still trying to piece together, as the double murder case I chose to follow gasps towards the home stretch, a week from now, in the magistrate’s court in Parys. Or — who knows — maybe there will be more delays, more twists, more lawyers’ bills.
The story in Parys began on January 6 2016, when a 72-year-old white farmer — a wealthy, curmudgeonly widower named Loedie van der Westhuizen, who lived alone in an isolated house — raised a bruised and bloodstained hand to press a security alarm button in his dining room.
At this point, you may well be thinking: I can guess what happens next.
Old Loedie’s relatives and neighbours were certainly expecting the worst as they grabbed their guns and jumped into their cars to respond to the alarm. After all, we have all read or heard the stories of SA farm attacks — the steady, well-publicised drumbeat of violent robberies and their all-too-familiar, grisly outcomes.
Many of the farmers, who lived near the giant Weiveld grain silos by the N1 motorway, had a particular image in their heads as they set out to hunt for two suspected black thieves. They were thinking of a deep-freezer being carried into Parys in the back of a police van — a freezer containing the body of an elderly white woman who had been tortured, then buried alive under packs of frozen meat, three years earlier. The woman and her husband had run a tuck shop on a nearby farm. They were both killed.
“Torture. Always torture,” said Francois Laux, the Hawks captain assigned to investigate the attack on Van der Westhuizen and its bloody aftermath.
Laux had seen plenty of gruesome crime scenes. A meat hook through an old lady’s chin, and the long bloodstain where she’d been dragged through the house. A thin body wrapped in an old carpet and stuffed under the bed. A grey-haired skull splintered by an axe blow. A hot iron pressed onto sagging flesh. That awful incident with an electric drill.
There was a pattern to the attacks. In all his four decades on the force, Laux said, he had never arrested a white person as a suspect in a farm murder.
Because, as it turned out, old Van der Westhuizen had survived his encounter with two suspected robbers. In fact, he’d seemed just fine to the police. A few small cuts and bruises. But that evening he’d been reluctant even to see a doctor.
Instead, his relatives, tearing across the countryside in their bakkies, had spotted, chased and caught two black men, eventually tackling them to the ground in the corner of a drought-parched field a few kilometres south of old Loedie’s farmhouse. In the fading light, at least a dozen farmers had taken turns assaulting the two unarmed men — local farm workers recognised by several people at the scene.
Eventually the police reached the field and took away the unconscious bodies of Simon Jubeba and Samuel Tjixa. The following morning, both were pronounced dead.
A few weeks later, I sat on a hard bench at the back of the magistrate’s court in Parys, watching a high-powered prosecution team — dispatched from Pretoria — argue that half a dozen farmers, now facing charges of double murder, should be denied bail. Old Loedie’s son, Boeta van der Westhuizen, was accused No 1.
I had driven to the Free State that morning, looking for a story to write a book about — a true-crime investigation that might help to explain something about modern SA to an international audience. I had covered the Oscar Pistorius case from start to finish, and had been fascinated by that process. But I was after something more grounded, more closely tethered to ordinary life.
At first I wasn’t sure this was the right story. I was certainly interested in that this was a counterintuitive case — a tale that cut against the grain of the more familiar type of farm murder. But I was also concerned that this sort of incident would drag me away from the real SA and towards an extreme, politically exaggerated version of a country supposedly consumed by violent racial divisions.
Those concerns were fuelled by the protests that had been taking place outside the magistrate’s court in Parys. White right-wingers — almost exclusively, I was told, from outside town — had been waving their flags, holding up banners warning of a white genocide, and singing their hymns. Across the barbed wire and the police lines, the ANC and EFF had sent their own protesters to demand that the farmers be denied bail.
It was street theatre. Far removed from the service delivery protests, or the other displays of spontaneous popular frustration I’d encountered during the course of many years living here and reporting on SA as part of my work as the BBC’s Africa correspondent.
But that afternoon, in court, I began to see a subtler story emerge. The magistrate, Leshni Pillay, suddenly raised her voice in irritation as a young black prosecutor openly disrespected her. Later she told me she was coming under heavy political pressure to deny the farmers bail.
“This is not Zimbabwe,” the magistrate said angrily. She felt the ANC was trying to turn the case into a racialised “political show trial” to win support at upcoming elections by demonising the white farmers. Soon afterwards she recused herself, and — disillusioned — she later quit her job and went to work in business.
I was quickly hooked.
A few days later, I went to the township of Tumahole, which stretches across the hillside overlooking Parys, the Vaal River, and the low hills that mark the northern crescent of the ancient meteorite impact site now known as the Vredefort Dome. I’d heard suggestions — loudly articulated by black politicians at Simon Jubeba and Samuel Tjixa’s funerals, and broadcast live on SABC — that the two men had not gone to rob old Loedie van der Westhuizen, but instead, had simply been asking their boss for unpaid wages.
I will admit I was sceptical. Why would the old man lie? Where had his injuries come from? But as I began to get to know Simon and Samuel’s friends and family, a more complicated, ambiguous story started to emerge — one of alleged beatings and abuse by white farmers, of the routine use of the “K” word, and of two frustrated black men who seemed to have told everyone, in the hours and days before they died, that they were, indeed, planning to head out to the farms to ask for wages they believed were owed to them.
For sure, there had been an altercation with old Loedie, but how could an elderly man have fought off two violent, possibly armed, robbers? Captain Laux was now busy asking the same question and quickly decided the white farmers were lying.
At first, the farmers opted for silence. A united Van der Westhuizen front. “You say nothing,” one farmer told his son. But by the time the case came to trial, in 2017, that unity had collapsed under pressure from the Hawks. One side of the family had decided to become state witnesses, pinning all the blame on their own relatives.
The trial was set to last for a few weeks. Most lawyers seemed to think it would take a year, all told. After all, it was a complicated case, with six accused — five farmers and a local policeman — and plenty of forensic evidence to wade through, plus the state witnesses to cross-examine. And, of course, everything needed to be translated in real time by the court interpreter. The lawyers and the judge all had their own busy diaries that left little space for quick rescheduling. A sense of gloom would envelop the courtroom — the accused, their relatives and the families of the dead men — every time the lawyers gathered in a huddle to consult their calendars.
In the end, the trial itself lasted for 56 days, spread out over two and a half years. The Judge then managed to take an entire year before delivering a hurried summary of her verdict, mid-pandemic.
Why so slow?
After four and a half years, the judge, prosecution and defence were still ... getting the men’s names, their photos, even the clothes they wore that day, mixed up
Nico Dreyer — one of two experienced defence lawyers involved in the case, who both died before the trial came to an end — told me that judges were becoming cautious in SA, wary of upsetting politicised prosecutors who were quick to find grounds for an appeal. I have no way of telling if that happened in Parys. From a distance, it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that this case was well run and well tried. But up close, the languid pace, the constant breaks and interruptions, suggested to me a legal system trapped in a smug, leisurely bubble, with little thought given to the six accused’s soaring expenses and the profound frustration of the families of Jubeba and Tjixa.
A trial is, inevitably and correctly, about the living not the dead. But the lack of interest in the identities of the two dead men was also striking. Even shocking. After four and a half years, the judge, prosecution and defence were still, almost routinely, getting the men’s names, their photos, even the clothes they wore that day, mixed up.
The trial involved a string of dramatic twists as the prosecution sought to argue that the judge should overlook profound flaws in the forensic evidence, and focus instead on the unarguable facts that two men had been beaten unconscious, that five farmers on trial had admitted to assaulting them, and that both victims had later died. The defence, by contrast, sought to highlight the muddled forensics, the questionable motives of the state witnesses, the possibility of other contributing factors, and to focus on the crucial issue of reasonable doubt.
At which point, we come to the verdicts themselves. In the end, all six accused were found not guilty of double murder, but are still awaiting sentencing for assault convictions.
It is, I suspect, more than likely that you hadn’t heard the news. Over the years, media interest — which had been loud and focused in the early stages — faded as the process dragged on and new stories jostled for attention. There was the Coligny “sunflower” murder trial. The “coffin” case. The names Simon Jubeba and Samuel Tjixa slipped quietly back into obscurity.
And perhaps that was the clearest lesson, for me, about what justice looks like in SA today — that we know so little about it. (And not just here of course — the demise of local journalism is a global crisis). We focus, understandably, on Zondo’s commission, and we wait for Zuma’s trial, and we glance at a handful of other headline cases as they race past. But it’s not enough. Justice, it strikes me, is like good government. It does not simply trickle down. Rather it is built up, case by case, in shabby, crowded courtrooms and obscure towns, by determined prosecutors, and by over-stretched legal aid defence attorneys. And it should all be taking place under close, and sustained scrutiny. But it is not.
• Harding is a BBC Africa correspondent and the author of ‘These Are Not Gentle People’
Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.