Let’s start at the beginning. The date is April 20 and a black youth lies dying on a lonely road in an iconic Highveld landscape. Mealies march over the horizon in all directions. There are grain silos in the distance.
Sun glints off the tin roofs of a nearby shack settlement, home of the boy lying in the dust at our feet. Between us and his parents’ shack is a vast sunflower field owned by Pieter Karsten, a leading farmer and businessman in the town of Coligny. The crop is worth tens of thousands of rands, and it is slowly vanishing. Kids in the squatter settlement are hungry. It’s laughably easy for them to nip over the fence, nick a few sunflower seeds and roast them over a fire.
Karsten has tasked two employees to prevent such pilferage. Phillip Schutte, 34, and Pieter Doorewaard, 26, are said by their supporters to be decent young men, raised in Christian homes, responsible and well-mannered. Over recent months, they’ve caught several kids helping themselves to Karsten’s crop. In every case, they loaded the offenders onto the back of a bakkie and delivered them into the hands of the police, who phoned their parents and released them with a warning. It is common cause that none of these citizen’s arrests involved violence.
Today is different. There stands Schutte and Doorwaard’s bakkie. Here lies a boy with a broken neck. Their version: they caught two teenagers stealing sunflower seeds. One ran away. They ordered the second onto the back of their bakkie and were heading towards the police station when he made a break for it, leaping off the vehicle as it slowed to take a corner, breaking his neck.
But there is another version, put forward by a thus-far nameless black man who told reporters and police he saw Schutte and Doorewaard beating the black boy to a bloody pulp, and that they threatened to murder him if he did not keep his mouth shut.
These contradictions could have been resolved by a swift and effective investigation. There were other witnesses, most important of whom was the alleged sunflower thief’s companion; if the police had found him in time, his testimony could have proved crucial. The same applies to witnesses who told reporters they saw a bakkie speeding past in the distance, stopping and returning to the spot where the youth lay dying; they too have yet to surface.
Also missing at the crucial moment were the results of a post-mortem which surely established the true cause of death; human violence leaves injuries very different from those caused by a high-speed tumble onto a rough dirt road. But the SAPS moves at a leisurely pace and sometimes doesn’t move at all; after 10 days, detectives hadn’t even established the boy’s identity, even though he lived within sight of the spot where he died. These uncertainties created a vacuum, and into the vacuum rushed a set of volatile ideas. One of these was ideological, but we will deal with that later. The other was racial.
Coligny is a place where grim conclusions come easily to some people. In the apartheid era, Afrikaners were stern masters of this landscape, administering discipline to their labourers as they saw fit, sometimes with fist and sjambok. Such incidents began to taper off after Eugene Terre’Blanche was imprisoned for savagely assaulting a cheeky petrol attendant in neighbouring Ventersdorp, and these days, they are vanishingly rare. But black people remember, and harbour deep resentment. They say Afrikaners still treat them rudely, and some tell you they’re still afraid of “the Boers.” It was but a small step from there to conclude that the death in the sunflower field just had to be a racist murder.
Around sunset on Sunday April 23, foreign traders in Coligny’s satellite township were visited by a mysterious man they knew only as “Tebele”. Tebele warned that an upheaval was coming, but since it had nothing to do with them, they would be safe if they just closed their shops and kept a low profile. Tebele is also said to have visited township schools the following morning, asking or ordering headmasters to release all pupils to join a protest targeted at Dooreward and Schutte, the white community that was supposedly shielding them, and the police who had thus far failed to arrest them.
A few minutes later, Dutch Reformed Church dominee MH Pieters got a call from a policeman warning that a large crowd was on its way into town and that the police could do nothing, because there were only five officers on duty and no reinforcements available thanks to violent service delivery protests in nearby Blydeville and Lichtenburg.
Judging by cellphone videos shot by apprehensive whites, the opening movement of Tebele's protest was fairly orderly; a throng of mostly schoolchildren marched or ran unopposed through the town’s business district, breaking the odd window and kicking down the doors of the town's only hotel, which is owned by Pieter Karsten, employer of the accused. When they got to the far end they found their way barred by a handful of white farmers, so they turned around, pausing to loot Karsten’s bar as they passed.
After that it was quiet for a while, but then police asked the farmers to withdraw on the grounds that their presence was "provocative". According to dominee Pieters, the Boers obliged and withdrew to protect Najaarsrus, the local old age home. At this point protesters realised the coast was clear and returned, their ranks swollen by hundreds of adults. There followed 24 hours of near-anarchy. All bottle stores in the business district were trashed and looted, most businesses too. Three houses were set alight, and six terrified white girls trapped in the ransacked hotel had to be rescued by what they called "the Boeremag" but which turned out to be the local farm patrol.
As word spread on social media, Afrikaners for hundreds of kilometers around began to mobilise and roll into Coligny to save their brethren. Some were armed, and ordentelike citizens didn’t like the look of them. As one put it, “The last thing we needed at that point was trigger-happy right-wingers shooting people in the streets,” so local Afrikaners set up roadblocks and politely asked strangers to go home, which was pretty brave, considering that night was falling and there was still no sign of strong police reinforcements. Many thought they’d be protected by God. Some put their faith in the essentially good nature of their black neighbours.
One of these was Diana Swart, a vivacious woman who used to manage the town’s multi-racial under-21 rugby team and make dresses for black girls who wanted to look beautiful at Coligny High School’s multi-racial matric ball. After dark, she sat under a tree outside her house, watching shadowy figures carrying looted TVs and beer crates back to the township. “My sons wanted to get me out,” she says, “but I wasn’t scared. I never thought anyone would harm me.” She was wrong. When the sun came up, her house was surrounded by a mob that threatened her with knives and then burned her house down, with her beloved dogs trapped inside.
By then, all the foreign traders’ shops in the townships had been burned out and looted too. There were 53 of them, and they didn’t really make news, even though they were by far the saddest victims of phase one of the battle of Coligny.
I found some of them in a makeshift refugee camp outside the town’s mosque, a throng of wretched Bangladeshis left with nothing but the clothes they stood up in and handfuls of ash that used to be their life savings. A tragic refrain ran through all their stories, and it went like this. “We know we are not really welcome here, so we try hard to make friends. We try to speak the language. We give presents to policemen so they will protect us. We help struggling people with credit, but when the looting started, families I know very well came with their children to carry my stock away.” One added: “A black person has no heart.” Then he gave me his name and phone number and said, “I don’t care if you identify me, I have nothing left to lose.”
Locals were more cautious. A house belonging to one of the town's old Indian families was burned down, but Indians wouldn't talk about it "because that will only make things worse for us". The few whites who were willing to be interviewed tended to cloak their true feelings in PC newspeak, and most blacks walked away when I asked awkward questions like, who organised this thing? Or, who is Tebele? Or, do you approve of school children being used in this way?
After one too many rebuffs of this nature, I walked back to the magistrate’s court, where the accused’s bail hearing was underway. On most mornings last week, there was a hard core of 15 to 20 militants toyi-toying outside the court, some wearing EFF red, but most wearing ANC yellow. Soon as school let out, though, the crowd swelled and reporters were treated to the spectacle of hundreds of excited youngsters chanting, "The police are thugs and whites are killers".
Their colour was school uniform, and they were oddly friendly, considering my white skin. They said the EFF and ANC had formed a united front to oppose bail for the “racist murderers,” and that the town would be burned to the ground if the accused weren’t kept behind bars. I didn’t take them seriously. They were children, and by last week, the police seemed to be firmly back in control, thanks to the deployment of 130 public order officers from elsewhere in the country. By late Friday afternoon my inquiry seemed to have reached a dead end, so I decided to go home and come back once things had calmed down.
I should make it clear at this point that I was sent to Coligny to write an in-depth piece about the violence and its underlying causes. After three days, I was still clueless, although it seemed clear that the alleged sunflower thief died at a convenient moment for the local ANC, which was facing violent protests across the troubled Ditsobotla District Municipality. In towns like Blydeville and Lichtenburg, the burning issues were corruption, incompetence, potholed roads, broken sewerage plants and intermittent water supply. The ANC-run municipality is hopelessly bankrupt, with debts of R323 million, four consecutive negative reports from the Auditor-General and a manager who has faced serious fraud allegations.
Black people in Coligny have similar complaints, and were in a mutinous mood long before the looting started. Against this backdrop, a nameless corpse in the government mortuary might have presented itself as a useful distraction. Which is to say, a chance for local ANC leaders to change the subject, shift the focus of rage to whites and demonstrate that their balls were still as big, red and militant as the EFF's.
But this was just a theory at that point. I hadn’t interviewed any local politicians. I had no idea what they were thinking until I woke up the next morning to find that a new drama was unfolding in Coligny. By that time, the boy from the sunflower field had been identified as 16-year-old Matlhomola Mosweu, and now his funeral was set to take place. The location was a giant tent outside Coligny’s shack settlement, and the keynote speaker was Supra Mahumapelo, ANC premier of the North West and an important ally of President Jacob Zuma.
According to a Twitter feed from News24 reporter Jeanette Chabalala, Mahumapelo began by stating there was “no confusion” about at whose hands Mosweu had died. This was odd. On Friday afternoon, the magistrate presiding over the bail hearing indicated that aspects of the evidence against the accused were confusing. “One of your witnesses says this, the other says that,” he told prosecutors. “It’s like a soccer player scoring goals on one side of the field while his team-mates score own goals on the other.” As previously stated, the police investigation was still in its infancy; key witnesses had yet to be traced, forensic evidence was lacking and the cause of death remained unknown. Beyond that, doubts had emerged about the credibility of the anonymous witness who claimed to have seen Doorewaard and Schutte beating Mosweu; it seems he told one version of that tale to a TV crew, and a significantly different one to police.
But Mahumapelo was immune to doubt. “Had they caught a white child, I don’t think they would have done it,” he thundered. “I have a problem with white superiority in this country. White people continue to control the land and the banks. We are going to call all the white people and tell them they are visitors in this country.” He was speaking from a podium recently vacated by Mxolisi Bomvana of teachers’ union Sadtu, the largest trade union still loyal to Jacob Zuma’s ANC. His message: “I don’t think what happened is the will of God. It is the racists of our time. (Mosweu) is gone because a racist decided to kill a black person.”
The third speaker at the funeral was Packet Seakotso, provincial secretary of Sanco, another key element of the Zuma’s grand alliance. His role was to inform the community about plans for the following Monday, when Magistrate Magoala Foso was expected to rule on Schutte and Doorewaard’s bail application. Seakotso didn’t exactly call for the town to be burned down, but he did indicate that direction action was imminent. “We are going to meet at the old municipal building,” he said. “We are closing the roads in an effort to oppose bail.”
Can we pause here to consider the significance of what you have just read? When the troubles in Coligny began, we were told that they were a “spontaneous” expression of the people’s righteous anger. Maybe so, but what we saw at the funeral was something else entirely. Mahumapelo and his comrades are ranking members of Jacob Zuma’s faction. They could have condemned the violence. They could have apologised to the 53 Bangladeshis, Somalis and Ethiopians who lost their livelihoods. They could have called for calm, and advised their followers to delay further protests until the facts were in. Instead, they chose to further inflame racial passions and collectively endorse a second round of protests in a town already smashed by rioting. I doubt this was an emotional error. To me, it looked like a coldly logical part of the Zuma administration’s survival strategy, which rests largely on scapegoating whites in the manner pioneered by Mugabe, endorsed in 2010 by Malema and recently adapted into Zuma’s plans for “radical economic transformation”.
The rest of it you know; at 10.30 on Monday, magistrate Foso announced that the law and his reading of the circumstances required him to set the murder accused free on bail. Within minutes, a white-owned farm on the outskirts of town was set on fire. By the time police arrived, a second fire had been set elsewhere, and then a third and a fourth, this time the home of an Indian businessman. Unhinged by the loss of his house, a farmer pulled a gun and attacked a cameraman for trespassing on his land. Police fought running battles with stone-throwing youth, using rubber bullets and stun grenades. By sunset, a measure of order had been restored, but the situation remained extremely tense, and racial minorities faced the night in a state of dread. “South Africa is finished,” an old Indian gentleman told me. “Soon this will spread everywhere.”
Ah, this country. Where did our glory go? Coligny was a sad and depressed place before these troubles began, and now it’s worse. Aside from Pieter Karsten and a few others, it is a town of poor whites and retired railway workers, struggling to survive on state grants and charity. Shops are shabby, houses dilapidated, roads potholed and full of sewage. Some houses in town have been on the market for years, but there are no buyers.
The surrounding farmland was once extremely valuable, but now it’s unsalable too, thanks to the sword of imminent nationalisation hanging over farmers’ heads. The town’s racial minorities are frightened and isolated, and the position of blacks is even more desperate. Exact figures are not available, but township residents say unemployment is around 80 percent. More than half of the populace is still waiting for flush toilets, and almost every family depends to some extent on social grants for its survival.
This makes Coligny a South African everyplace, and thus fertile ground for politicians trying to manufacture anti-white rage, either as a tool to gain power or in the case of Zuma, to hold onto it by inventing an enemy whose defeat will usher the masses into the utopia of full economic freedom, where everyone has a nice life “like the whites.” This is a cruel and tragic hoax. The big money fled this country long ago. Whites are a tiny and dwindling minority, well on their way to absolute irrelevance. In Coligny and surrounding towns, only one percent of the populace earns more than R600 000 a year, while 87 percent fall below the tax threshold; numbers like these suggest that taking everything from whites and redistributing it to the poor would make barely a dent in black poverty. And the price to be paid for that redistribution would be terrifying; total loss of investor confidence, capital flight, decimation of jobs, collapse of the tax base, end of the social grants, and ultimately, a fate far worse than Zimbabwe’s, because where will our refugees go?
South Africa is a country where many possible futures beckon. One of these is on display in Coligny, and it’s ugly for everyone. Another, better outcome is still possible. We should grasp it before it vanishes.
- Rian Malan is an acclaimed journalist and author of My Traitor’s Heart and Resident Alien.
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