Newsmaker – ‘My boy is fine. He is alive’

2011-09-03 16:52

Father of black boy in Facebook picture says white man holding gun is a ‘cool person’ who loves his child

On a sunny afternoon on a farm in Bloemhof, in North West, a 19-year-old man carrying a rifle sees a little eight-year-old boy sleeping in the grass. He stands over the boy and one of his companions photographs the scene with a cellphone.

The little boy’s father and three of the boy’s friends stand by, laughing, while watching the incident ­unfold.

Later, the little boy’s father carries him to shade under a tree where he continues sleeping, unaware of what had happened.

As dusk falls, they all hop into a bakkie and head back to their ­respective homes. The whole thing is quickly forgotten. It was a joke, they say, just one of the games boys play here in this rural backwater.

But to a South Africa that has just emerged from decades of institutionalised racism, the photograph of a white man standing over a little black boy in a hunter’s trophy pose evokes anger, outrage and police and media attention.

The photograph was published on the front page of the Sunday Times last week under the headline “Wanted: Facebook racist”.

It also made headlines internationally and drew outrage from various civil and human-rights groups.

The photograph was reportedly used on social networking site ­Facebook as a profile picture of someone calling themselves ­Eugene Terrorblanche.

This was apparently in reference to slain right-wing leader Eugene Terre’Blanche.

Terrorblanche has disappeared from cyberspace since last weekend’s reports. Back on the country roads of Bloemhof, nobody seems to know anything about the episode.

Bloemhof is a one-street town situated on the banks of the Vaal River, lying on the edges of the great Bloemhof dam.

Roaring freight trucks and buses heading to Cape Town in the south and Joburg via the N12 pass through Bloemhof, forming an integral part of the town’s economy.

At night, the drearily lit main street (N12) comes alive with sex workers hoping to make a fleshy buck from the truckers.
The town is surrounded by stretches of cattle and maize farms. And this being diamond country, most farmers prospect for diamonds on their land, hoping to strike it rich.

This is one of those rural areas where you travel for miles without meeting another person, and the only sign of life is cattle grazing on the flat landscape.

At night, the sky above the countryside shines with a million stars and the peace is disturbed occasionally by distant jackal calls.

One of the few people we meet on our mission to establish whether the issue of the photograph has had a bearing on race relations in the dorp is Evelyn Phologani (48).

Her face smeared with home-made sunblock, she is riding a ­bicycle on the main road towards the town of Schweizer Reneke, some 40km away, to visit friends.

“No,” she replies when we ask if she knows about the photograph and if there is any racism in the ­area. “We are okay here. Nobody troubles each other. We just want to work and I have not heard of any funny people.

“The whites are not a problem. I think if there are those who are a problem then it’s just how people are. But I have not heard of any white people treating blacks ­badly,” she says.

In the nearby township of Boitumelong, unemployed young people loiter the streets. Most of them survive on piece jobs from the farms and diamond mining.

There is no mistaking the grinding poverty and depression in the decrepit old houses and bare RDP houses.

On the side of the road on the outskirts of Boitumelong, we spot Motlalepule Setseitsi trying to conceal the carcass of what looks like a hyena that was struck by a car the previous night.

Setseitsi, who does not know her age, is adamant the grisly looking creature is destined for the pot. She has lived in this area all her life and says the white people here mind their own business.

“They only get angry with those who try to steal their diamonds,” she says.

Although the outrage that was caused by the photograph does not seem to exist in Bloemhof, Louis Vertue, a lawyer representing the young white man, is worried.

“If people who don’t know the ­real story recognise him from the picture he could be in danger,” says Vertue.

“He is not a racist, as has been reported. He is shocked by the whole thing and doesn’t know how it got into the media,” he says.

On Monday night, we met the parents of the black boy in the ­photograph at a fast-food restaurant in the town.

They had been driven there by a relative of the white man, who expressed his surprise at the whole episode. He says he wished people could see just how the two families lived in peace on the farm.

Why, he asks, would the parents stay on the farm for 14 years if their employers were racist?

The boy’s father is a foreman on the farm, a prestigious position among farm-working folk.

Over cans of Coke, the father, with his wife constantly chipping in to express her surprise at why the whole thing has suddenly cropped up again, revealed what he maintains is the real story behind the photograph.

In fact, the woman seemed more concerned about the white man’s safety than her own, constantly maintaining that he is good and adores her son.

The story is repeated in sworn ­affidavits in which the 39-year-old father and 40-year-old mother say they were under no duress.

One afternoon some time in 2008, the little boy and some of his friends joined his father and the farmer’s teenage son on their usual rounds on the farm.

The boy apparently felt tired and fell asleep on a patch of grass.

“We found it amusing that the boy lay like a dead person. (The white man) told me I should pick up the child and place him in the shadows and asked if he could take a picture of him. (The white man) had his rifle which he shoots ­pigeons with. I gave ­permission for him to pose with the child and the rifle.”

The father says he was not angry or offended. He seems confused about having to explain and make statements about what was ­supposed to be a joke.

In his affidavit, the father says the roles were reversed during a year-end braai on the farm in 2008, when the little black boy posed with the rifle standing over the white man. There seems to be no record of this photograph.

But one day he and his wife were surprised to get a visit from the police. Apparently they had picked up a cellphone at a road ­accident scene near Schweizer ­Reneke and found the picture. Their investigations led them to the boy’s family.

“The police wanted to know where the boy was and if he was okay. We explained the whole thing to them and took them to the boy’s school and they saw him.

“The child was never in danger. Nothing bad happened to him. We just laughed and even forgot about it then,” he says.

“My boy is fine. He is alive. He comes to the farm on weekends ­because he goes to school.”

The father describes the white man as “a cool person”, saying: “He does not hate black people. He likes playing around with the black children and takes them along when he goes around the farm.

“They teach him Setswana and he teaches them Afrikaans. He loves my son. When he does well at school he gives him money,” says the father.

The boy’s mother maintains that the incident has nothing to do with racism and that they have ­always been treated well by their ­employers.

“I don’t know why people would think we would hide such things if they were happening. You know even our son does not know what is exactly going on.

“This is a good boy. Even my son loves him a lot and is always travelling with him when he is on the farm. I hope people will not cause him any trouble,” she says.

Although in Bloemhof they think the whole thing was just

a joke, Hawks’ spokesperson McIntosh Polela says they are looking into the matter.

He says that although there is no investigation at the moment, they are still reviewing the docket that was opened after finding the ­picture in 2008.

Polela says this will also help them determine what happened to the initial case and perhaps also ­establish how it made its way ­online.

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