Oh little town of Bethlehem, what injustice was committed in thee
Jonny Steinberg narrates how he was moved to view SA through the eyes of a man locked away from the changing nation for 19 years
I could have sworn that I was in my office when I read the newspaper report that triggered this book. My memory has me reading the words on the monitor on my desk, then gazing out of the window at the brickwork on the building across the road. Indeed, I cannot picture that article except on my monitor, and I cannot separate my first thoughts about it from the view of the brickwork. They are forever fused.
When I return to the article I am astonished to learn that it was published on December 31 2011, for I was on holiday then, in southwestern France, and must have read it on my laptop, sitting on a couch in front of a log fire. Of this, I have no memory at all.
Salutary, that, for those who took part in the events that follow have told and retold the story so often that none has cause to believe what he remembers.
The article I read that day recounts an immense injustice. In April 2011, two SA men walked free after 19 years in jail. They were black and poor and on the day they went to prison they were little educated. And they were innocent. A murder had been committed, of that there is no doubt, but neither man had had anything to do with it.
The crime had taken place in broad daylight on the outskirts of a rural town called Bethlehem in the province of the Free State. Two white patrol officers had approached a bakkie full of black men and were greeted with volleys of fire from an AK-47. One of the officers, Lourens Oosthuizen, aged 21, died on the scene. The other, Johannes Joubert, aged 29, was left permanently disabled.
It was 1992, and white South Africans were crazy with fear, for they were about to lose power and in their thoughts they died a thousand deaths. But they still controlled the police and the courts, and could thus inflict their wild fears on two young men without the wherewithal to defend themselves. Fusi Mofokeng and Tshokolo Mokoena were convicted of murder, though they had not been on the scene of the crime, on the grounds of common purpose.
It was said that they had beckoned the murderers from Johannesburg to the rural town of Bethlehem to rob a wealthy white man. The luckless constables Oosthuizen and Joubert had approached the would-be robbers just minutes before they were to descend on their prey. And so Mofokeng and Mokoena were convicted of murder on the grounds that they had orchestrated a crime that had ended in a killing.
Six years later, apartheid was dead, Nelson Mandela was president, and the four surviving men who had in fact committed the crime appeared, together with Mofokeng and Mokoena, at SA’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The four had applied for amnesty on the grounds that they had shot their weapons as freedom fighters. They had been trained in combat by the armed wing of the ANC, they said, and were acting under military discipline. They had been moving across the country in a vehicle full of military weapons when the two police officers had approached them. Their standing orders were to resist surrendering either themselves or their weapons. And so they had opened fire.
If an applicant before the Amnesty Committee of the TRC could show that his motives were political and if he confessed the full extent of his crime, the law bound the TRC to grant him amnesty. The four were so granted.
Fusi Mofokeng took the stand. He and Tshokolo Mokoena had no crime to confess, he said. They were not trained in military combat. They were just ordinary young men. They had not beckoned the combatants to Bethlehem. They had played no role in the events that unfolded that day. Their four co-applicants confirmed that this was indeed the case.
The Amnesty Committee expressed its heartfelt sympathy for Mofokeng and Mokoena. But it could not grant them amnesty, for they had committed no crime. And so the four who were guilty of murder walked free, while the two who were guilty of nothing remained in prison for another 12 years.
It could be that I and my fellow South Africans have become hardened to travesty. For I must confess that the story stayed with me, not for the injustice it recounted but for a casual remark Fusi Mofokeng reportedly made.
“The thing that most amazed him in his first seven months of freedom,” the reporter Rowan Philp, wrote, “was not smartphones and Google, but that ‘a white lady actually served me at a restaurant and was very nice to me too’”.
The moment I read those lines, I wanted urgently to meet Fusi Mofokeng. I wanted to borrow the eyes of a person who had walked into 2011 from the past. For I had it in mind that we’d forgotten what had changed and what had not since the end of apartheid; that it would take an insurmountable effort to distinguish the old from the new. What an opportunity, I thought: to consult a person who has been as if asleep all these years.
I wrote Fusi Mofokeng a letter. I wished to get in touch while the world around him was still surprising.
Between the sending of that letter and our first meeting, five months passed. Fusi Mofokeng was not one to proceed on impulse, it appeared; he had felt it necessary to take advice before acting upon correspondence from out of the blue. And, besides, I was living in the UK and some time passed before I could make it to SA.
Having set aside a day and a time many weeks in advance, I finally phoned him on the afternoon of June 18 2012, on the road from Johannesburg to Bethlehem, to ask for directions to his house.
“You will get lost in the black township,” he said, the voice in my ear deliberate and courteous. “Even myself, I am still getting lost.”
And so, at rush hour, at an intersection in the very centre of Bethlehem, a middle-aged man in a golf shirt waved to me from the other side of the street. I crossed and went to him and shook his hand and he invited me into the passenger seat of his car, an old red Toyota Camry. He drove out into the traffic with great caution, his body bent towards the windscreen, his shoulders a little hunched. We exchanged pleasantries — about my drive from Johannesburg, for instance, and about his day at work. He had spent much of it under the bonnets of various Bethlehem municipal vehicles.
The moment I read those lines, I wanted urgently to meet Fusi Mofokeng. I wanted to borrow the eyes of a person who had walked into 2011 from the past.Jonny Steinberg
“I like to be alone with a broken machine,” he said. “You concentrate hard. You look at your watch and are surprised because the day is done. If, by then, you have fixed the machine, it has been a good day.”
From out of the blue, on the open road leading out of town, he gasped suddenly and ducked his head, his hands still firm on the steering wheel. I swivelled instinctively to see if a missile had been thrown into the car.
He recovered his composure and smiled at me, somewhat embarrassed.
“There is a speed camera in this spot,” he said conspiratorially, pointing a finger at the side of the road, “right as you descend the hill and pick up speed. They have caught me here three times. I have learnt to slow down. But now I was chatting to you and not paying attention. I think I was doing 65km/h.”
A forgotten feeling came over me. I took in his shaven head and cheeks, his even-tempered face, his maroon golf shirt and his polyester slacks, the gentle bulge of his soft stomach and the smell of soap. I felt I had met him many times before. He was a middle-aged workingman who doffs his cap at strangers and on Sunday mornings sings in a steady baritone in the church pews.
I was transported back nearly a quarter of a century to the days when I met such men every Tuesday evening, at the Cosatu Johannesburg shop stewards local, during the dying days of apartheid. These modest men, more than twice my age, men who seemed to shuffle rather than to walk, and who greeted me with a decorum so deep and so strange that they seemed to come from another world.
• The above extract is taken from One Day in Bethlehem by Jonny Steinberg, published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.