‘A bloodbath was no way to rebuild SA’

2014-03-30 14:00

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It’s no simple matter scheduling a meeting with Justice Bekebeke, director-general of the Northern Cape.

His diary is a tightly run ship captained by Zadia Langeveldt, his friendly but firm personal assistant.

She squeezes us in on a weekday morning and we rush to Kimberley, the province’s administrative seat.

It’s raining in normally bone-dry Kimberley and, around us, grey sky presses against the thirsty earth.

But Bekebeke’s office, on the sixth floor of a blunt red-brick building, is bright inside, his smile and extended hand are welcoming.

On the wall sits a framed black-and-white photograph of a smiling Nelson Mandela casting his first vote.

“This is my daily inspiration,” he says, nodding at the picture. “That is why it’s here, where I can see it from my desk every day.”

He explains how, growing up in the Pabalello township in Upington, black children could only attend school up to standard 6.

“If your parents could scrape together the money, you got sent to the Eastern Cape for further schooling. I was lucky,” he says.

Bekebeke’s father was a truck driver for Eskom. His mother was a domestic worker.

After school he studied nursing in Windhoek, then returned to South Africa in 1985 with dreams of becoming a doctor.

These are poignant memories, but Bekebeke’s tone is conversational, his long fingers are calmly folded. His cream shirt is cut from finely textured fabric, his cuff links are gold.

Five years before South Africa’s first democratic election, Bekebeke was sentenced to death with 13 others for murdering municipal policeman Lucas Tshenolo Sethwala in Upington on November 13 1985.

At the time, Pabalello was gripped by violence and a gathering intended to air grievances ended when police fired tear gas and residents retaliated with stones.

In the chaotic aftermath, Sethwala fired bullets at the crowd, injuring a young boy. Incensed, Bekebeke gave chase and bludgeoned the policeman to death. The policeman’s body was also doused in petrol and set alight.

In 1989, after a marathon 18-month trial in a scorching Upington courtroom, one of the most publicised in South Africa’s apartheid judicial history, Judge Jan Basson imparted his decision without further comment: death by hanging for all 14 under the law of “common purpose”.

The case made international headlines.

The New York Times reported: “They are the largest group of people sentenced to death in South Africa for a politically motivated crime within memory.”

A similar prosecution was used to convict the Sharpeville Six of murdering a township official in 1984.

While on death row at Pretoria Central Prison, Bekebeke started studying law to assist his comrades. “Revenge was uppermost in my mind,” he recalls.

“We spent a lot of time devising plans to put people in misery.”

But change was starting to sweep the country’s political landscape.

A year later, Nelson Mandela was freed and the ANC unbanned.

An appeals court overturned the death sentences and Bekebeke was released in January 1992.

Speaking from his office in Kimberley, his calm does not falter: “Back in the 1990s, I was a completely different person. When I got out of prison I was consumed by hatred.”

On 24 June 1995, on the morning of the rugby World Cup final, Bekebeke was still too bitter to support the Springboks.

He watched his friends and family huddled in front of a television set inside a tiny Pabalello home to support the Springboks.

“I felt quite betrayed. They were wishing the Boks well. I thought I was the only sane one there.”

But then the emotion of the event swept him along. “I heard them chanting ‘Nelson!’ ‘Nelson!’ ‘Nelson!’, these white people.

They were embracing Mandela as their leader and he was embracing them.

“There was a gradual transformation. I realised, eventually, that having a bloodbath was no way to rebuild South Africa.”

Today, his four children, aged between 13 and 30, gawk at his stories of the past.

“My youngest, especially, is incredulous. When I tell her that back in the day I was not allowed on the grounds of the school she attends in Kimberley, except maybe as the garden boy, she laughs. ‘Tell me another story, Daddy! How is that even possible?’ she will say.”

Bekebeke’s wife, Ntombizodwa, an education specialist, died 10 years ago. He still wears his wedding ring. “Bitterness doesn’t get you anywhere. The one who is bitter, loses,” he says.

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