As early as 8AM on December 8, in the farming town of Middelburg in Mpumalanga, a province in north east South Africa, a portion of Beyers Naude Street, near the Middelburg Magistrate’s Court was cordoned off. A heavy group of armed police guarded a huge crowd marching up and down and shouting political slogans.
Inside the court two men, Willem Oosthuizen and Theo Jackson, stood in the dock awaiting their fate on a plea for bail before their trial for assault and kidnapping. Before 11AM, Magistrate Jongilizwe Dumehleli dismissed the application. As the news reached the crowd outside, a celebration erupted and cheers and clenched fists were raised in song. A hero’s welcome greeted Victor Rethabile Mlotshwa, a plaintiff, as he emerged from the court surrounded by African National Congress regional leaders.
“I am grateful of the judgment today, I hope the justice will be served and these people get what they deserve,” says Mlotshwa.
Dressed in a baseball cap, golf shirt and pair of blue jeans, Mlotshwa and his mother were ushered to the back of a big truck, stationed outside the court, where politicians delivered speeches condemning racism in the divided town of Middelburg.
In November, video footage emerged on social media showing Oosthuizen and Jackson forcing a crying Mlotshwa into a coffin and threatening to pour petrol on him to burn him alive. The video sparked widespread outrage and the two were locked up.
“Thanks to technology, we would not have known about the video. Now, there’s concrete evidence against these racists. These days we are even afraid to send our children to work on farms because they suffer the same fate as the young Victor. If you can go to the farms and dig you will probably uncover skeletons of black people they are killing,” says Patricia Shongwe, a 50-year-old protester.
Thembi Magubane is a restaurant worker in Witbank, a 30-minute drive from Middelburg.
“I dropped everything to be here. This is the same treatment we get at the restaurant where I work. They force us to speak Afrikaans [which] we don’t understand and when something goes wrong we are to blame. We are treated like animals by these racist whites all the time,” says Magubane.
The only white person in the crowd supporting Mlotshwa was an ANC supporter who introduced herself only as Rose.
“I want to go in there and bliksem (hit) those guys, racism has no place in this country,” she says.
But not everyone was in a celebratory mood; six white farmers who supported the accused were peeved. They accused the presiding magistrate of bias and indecisiveness.
“No, we are not their family members, we are here to support our community members. Farmers are killed every day but you don’t see us forcing judges to make decisions. This is appalling,” says one of them.
Tessa Riekert, leader of National Conservative Party in Mpumalanga, says she believes the accused deserved bail.
“I don’t think this was a fair judgment. Our famers are being killed daily, two or three or four famers. We have one farmer who was stabbed 49 times and killed, but the suspect was set free on a bail of R2000 ($145). So, is he not a danger to society?” says Riekert.
“What they have done is wrong, I absolutely don’t agree with it. They haven’t proven guilty but don’t we all make mistakes? This guy walked away with his life but our farmers don’t, they gang up on them and they kill them. [The crowd] forced this judge to get to this decision, by being here, by shouting political slogans. I am very disappointed murderers are walking in the street right now and they are carrying on with what they are doing. Honestly, I don’t think the court will give them a fair trial. We are in a minority, we cannot pull out a crowd like the ANC is doing right here. White genocide is ongoing every day,” she says.
The accused were to reappear on January 25.
MIDDELBURG, SOUTH AFRICA NOVEMBER 2016: (SOUTH AFRICA OUT): Theo Jackson and Willem Oosthuizen during their appearance at the Middelburg Magistrates Court for allegedly assaulting and forcing a farm worker, Rethabile Victor Mlotshwa into a coffin on November 16, 2016 in Mpumalanga, South Africa. There has been an uproar after a viral video showing Jackson and Oosthuizen assaulting and forcing Mlotshwa into a coffin. The two accused abandoned their bail applications sighting security concerns. The case was postponed to January 25, 2016. (Photo by Alon Skuy/ The Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images)