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.