Guest Column

The ties that bind: Henri van Breda and that 'Starry Night'

2017-11-03 12:59
Henri van Breda before his cross-examination. (Tammy Petersen, News24)

Henri van Breda before his cross-examination. (Tammy Petersen, News24)

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Jenna Etheridge

In the almost 60 days he has been on trial for allegedly axing his family to death, Henri van Breda has quite often arrived at the Western Cape High Court wearing a tie depicting Vincent van Gogh's iconic painting Starry Night.

Most of his other ties bear stripes and safe colours. This one dazzles with its shades of cobalt blue and yellow.

It's hard to miss.

Van Gogh, as the tortured genius, had painted an impression of the night sky he based on imagination and parts of what he saw from the iron-barred window of his asylum room in 1889.

The asylum became his refuge after a mental health struggle which resulted in him lopping off his ear with a razor blade.

He seemed to grapple with the meaning of life and death, the idea of an afterlife, and the agony of the state he was in.

When I look at his art, I am swept away by the interplay between dream and reality, natural and unnatural.

The creation of the imagined is evident in the phrase, "Hope is in the stars", that Van Gogh shared in a letter with his brother Theo.

It was not a starry night, but one filled with passing clouds when a "laughing", axe-wielding man disturbed the sanctity of the Van Bredas' home on January 27, 2015 (if weather forecasting websites are to believed).

The giggling apparently still haunts the nightmares of the accused.

Henri is pinning his hopes on the court buying into the reasonable possibility that a vicious criminal(s), skilled in breaching security estates, targeted him and his family in a terrible, inexplicable attack.

A dark, ghostly shadow.

The mystery we keep returning to is how this shadow swept through the house without a trace. Without taking any fancy belongings.

And why Henri didn't run outside to shout for help from neighbours.

He was left with superficial injuries that the State insists, much like Van Gogh's ear, are self-inflicted.

Almost as if in a dream, he has mostly recalled these details in a monotone voice.

South Africans watched with a mix of horror, awe and disbelief as he demonstrated how the attacker wielded an axe and knife, possibly taken from their kitchen and pantry.

We are all trying to understand what yet another brutal attack means for our society.

Some on social media have rejected his version of being a victim to an attacker who "could have been black".

Others have sprung to his defence, as the description fits into their own fears or experiences of crime.

A middle child from a privileged family, Henri, 23, has surely fantasised about his status and identity as a white man in a democratic country.

No longer can he return to the carefree "gap year" with its water sports.

He must instead suit up every day and put on a tie which, to many men, is a constricting noose of responsibility around the neck.

His tie and aeroplane brooch (apparently a gift from his girlfriend) signal scenarios of being somewhere else or flying away from it all.

Perhaps they are so-called transitional objects for him – much like Linus's safety blanket – items with an imbued magic that provide psychological comfort from the distress of what is happening.

Most people would be greatly distressed if their family was wiped out and they were wrongly accused.

Especially if their only interest in sharp objects happened to be the knives they were taught to use at a culinary school in Woodstock.

And, if not so innocent, he must be wrestling with the prospect of spending years in an iron-barred room.

As much as Henri wants to escape, he is trapped in the witness box until he can provide answers.

Only he knows the "Real Henri".

Maybe he's the baby-faced disturbed killer who has played us all… a shrewd individual whose mannerisms and fashion choices are all part of a rehearsed tragic script.

The danger in trying to make meaning of all of this is that "sometimes a tie is just a tie".

- Jenna Etheridge is a reporter for News24 in Cape Town and specialises in court reporting. She currently acts as night news editor. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    henri van breda  |  murder  |  court
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