South Africa

The tangled tale of Flippie Engelbrecht

By Rebecca Davis 10 September 2013

A farmworker’s teenage son, beaten by the farmer and his manager so badly that he developed epilepsy and subsequently fell into a fire, ending up blind and without any hands. It was a horrifying story of farmer brutality and its tragic knock-on consequences. But within days of the farmer in question having taken his own life, new information seemed to cast the Flippie Engelbrecht story in a slightly different light. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Johnny Burger’s farm Rietvallei, near Robertson, is one of the oldest wine estates in the area. It was bought by a Burger patriarch in 1864, and generations of subsequent Burgers have continued the family tradition of wine-making. Johnny Burger, who died in an apparent suicide last Tuesday, took over the farm’s running in 1973.

The farm’s website screens a rolling succession of family photographs. Black-and-white portraits of ancestors in stiff collars rub shoulders with more recent Burger incarnations lounging in bucolic surrounds. The Burgers seem to be a dog-loving family. A video shows the farm workers going about their toil to make the estate wines from a crop which includes the oldest-producing Muscadel grapes in the country. “Seven generations of timeless tradition,” the video declaims.

Flippie Engelbrecht’s parents, Flip (53) and Katriena (48) were two of the workers on Burger’s farm, up until the end of 2008. Their son Flippie was born in the year when South Africa was making its formal transition to democracy: 1994. But despite the optimism of the time, young Flippie was always unlikely to have an easy ride. In a province with the highest rate of “risky alcohol use” in the country – the legacy of the dop system – there is some evidence to suggest that one or both of Flippie’s parents are alcoholics. A medical report on Flippie from Tygerberg Hospital last year seen by the Daily Maverick records under ‘Algemeen’ (‘General’): ‘Pa rook; Ma alkoholis’ (Father smokes; mother alcoholic).

Notes on Flippie from Worcester’s Pioneer School for the Visually Impaired suggest that a parental drinking problem may have been partially responsible for Flippie’s failure to return to school after two terms in 2010. “Die ouers [het] weer verval in drankmisbruik [en Flippie het] aangedui dat hy nie wil terugkom skool toe nie”, the report states: “The parents had relapsed into alcohol abuse and Flippie indicated that he didn’t want to return to school”.

Even without the disabilities that Flippie would be saddled with in his teen years, then, his was never likely to be a cushy upbringing. As farmworkers, his parents would have been poorly paid. Life on Rietvallei may have been a mixed bag with Johnny Burger as ‘Baas’. At his funeral last week, they played Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. Die Burger reported that some Rietvallei farmworkers were in floods of tears. But a local farmer who declined to be named told the Daily Maverick this week that Burger was known to be volatile, and that rumours of assaults trailed him.

On the 25th of January, 2008, it is claimed that Flippie Engelbrecht was violently beaten by Johnny Burger and his manager Wilhelm Treurnicht. In a video uploaded in July 2013 by the NGO which has championed Flippie’s case – the Freedom Trust – Flippie is shown explaining in Afrikaans what he claims happened to him that day. “They took me and rammed my head against the cellar tank,” he says. “And then when they rammed my head against the tank, Johnny Burger hit me. He hit me off my feet.”

Flippie says that the farmer struck him in the face with his fist. The video’s voiceover explains that during the assault, blood started gushing from Flippie’s ears. The claim is that Burger called a kitchen worker to stem the blood using cotton wool, and then continued with the assault. Flippie allegedly ran out of the cellar to hide under a truck. Due to a number of logistical problems, it’s alleged that Flippie only got to hospital three days later.

“By then, Flippie was drifting in and out of consciousness,” the voiceover continues. “Flippie sustained a skull-based fracture which resulted in massive bleeding on his brain. During emergency surgery, Flippie’s eye nerves were irreparably damaged. He returned from hospital blind. As a direct result of the assault, Flippie sustained epilepsy. He experiences frequent seizures. Eighteen months after the attack, the smoke of a cooking fire triggered an epileptic seizure.” Flippie fell into the fire and sustained such severe burns that his hands had to be amputated.

It’s a horrifying story, and the Freedom Trust, led by Corina Papenfus, has worked hard to keep it in the public eye. Back in 2008, criminal charges were brought against Burger and Treurnicht but the charges were withdrawn. The Freedom Trust says that’s because Burger intimidated and paid witnesses not to testify. But that was before the Engelbrechts had the Freedom Trust on their side. This year a new investigation was launched, and charges of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm were laid against both Burger and Treurnicht.

The Freedom Trust was founded in March this year, but only established a Facebook account on 19 July, which is when the campaign on Flippie’s behalf began in earnest. In mid-August, Flippie was donated a pair of prosthetic hands by a company called Robohand SA, which resulted in a lot of positive publicity. But Papenfus’s focus has always seemed to be as much on vengeance against Burger as on justice for Flippie.

For the last few months, Papenfus has been waging a relentless social media war against Rietvallei and Johnny Burger: supporters arrived at court wearing T-shirts calling for justice to be meted out to the “Rietvallei Monster”. Papenfus called for the boycotting of Rietvallei wines, and the 2OceansVibe website claims that Burger was increasingly concerned that Pick ‘n Pay would refuse to stock his ‘John B’ range of wines.

On the 3rd of September, exactly ten days before he was due back in court, Johnny Burger shot himself on his farm. The Freedom Trust put out a statement expressing “sincere condolences”, but Papenfus later described the suicide to Rapport journalists as the act of a guilty conscience. A friend of Burger’s angrily denied that to Rapport, saying that Burger’s act was only to spare his family further hurt.

Johnny Burger het nie selfmoord gepleeg oor hy skuldig of berou gevoel het nie,” the friend said (“Johnny Burger did not commit suicide because he felt guilt or remorse”).  “Hy het gedoen wat enige ander ouer vir sy kinders sou doen – in hierdie geval oor hy die aanvalle wou stop. Niks meer en niks minder nie.” (“He did what any other parent would do for his children – in this case, that he wanted the attacks to stop. Nothing more and nothing less.”)

Burger’s suicide did not daunt the Freedom Trust. Two days later, Papenfus sent an email to journalists: “Dear Media, We are making a scrapbook for Flippie and his family. We need your help. Please send us some of the photographs you have been taking of the Flippie Saga so that we can document the road to freedom he embarked on.”

But Burger’s death seems to have galvanised farmers in the Robertson area, who are tired of what they say is a pack of lies largely constructed by Papenfus to demonise farmers and possibly extort money. They speak darkly of a potential ANC conspiracy, since all four committee members of the Freedom Trust are ANC members, and provincial leader Marius Fransman has expressed his support for Papenfus’s work. Now a counter-offensive has been launched. In the days since Burger’s suicide, documents have been passed to journalists (including the Daily Maverick) which call a number of aspects of Papenfus’s Flippie narrative into question.

Papenfus claims that Flippie was assaulted on 25 January, 2008, and three days later had an operation at Tygerberg Hospital that left him blind. As a direct result of this assault, Papenfus says that Flippie developed epilepsy. She claims that just over 18 months later, in September 2009, Flippie fell into a fire while having a seizure and sustained the burns that forced the amputation of his hands.

But there are conflicting accounts. Mariette Adelaar, the packing manager on neighbouring farm Saratoga, has come forward to tell the Cape Argus, Rapport and eNCA that she knew for a fact that Flippie had suffered epilepsy from at least as far back as 2006 because she used to live next door to him and witnessed his seizures. The Freedom Trust has hinted that they believe Adelaar is either being paid or intimidated for this testimony. Papenfus stuck to her guns on Monday, telling the Cape Argus: “Medical reports with the prosecutor prove that he never suffered from epilepsy before the attack”.

There has as yet been no sign of Flippie’s records from his alleged stay at Tygerberg Hospital in January 2008. However, the copy of the records of Worcester’s Pioneer School for the Visually Impaired in the Daily Maverick’s possession appears to show that in October 2009, when Flippie was applying to the school, his parents told the principal that he “op vreemde wyse blind geraak” (“became blind in a strange way”), apparently after a complication relating from an abscess on his cheek. His mother said that Flippie was taken to the Tygerberg Hospital and was blind upon release.

There is a Tygerberg Hospital record of a patient called Flip Engelbrecht, whose birthdate matches Flippie’s, having tests done at the Department of Radiology in November 2009 due to presenting with a “subdural empyema” – which a medical expert explained to the Daily Maverick is “roughly speaking, pus in between the skull and the brain”. The expert said she didn’t have enough information to give an opinion on whether the condition could have left him permanently blind. It’s unclear, however, why the Tygerberg record would be dated November 2009, but the Worcester school’s testimony suggests that he was already blind and visiting the school in October 2009.

The fire incident is less ambiguous, however. Records from Worcester Hospital appear to show that a patient matching Flippie’s details was admitted on 19 August 2012 as a “blind epileptic patient who sustained 35% full thickness burns” after “he had a seizure and fell into an open fire”. On the 29th of August he underwent “bilateral hand amputations” and from there was transferred to the Burns Unit at Tygerberg Hospital. This, then, suggests that the fire accident took place a full three years after Papenfus claims it did.

How does she account for these discrepancies in the timelines? “We do not intend to litigate by media,” Papenfus told the Daily Maverick via email on Monday. “We deem it dangerous to publish the confidential medical records of a minor without his or his parents’ knowledge or consent.” She went on to accuse Burger’s defence team of leaking documents to the media.

“The onslaught by the defence is as transparent and cheap as a China shop negligee in as far as it attempts to abuse the media to create a reasonable doubt and cast suspicion on the complainant and the organisation supporting him and his family,” Papenfus wrote. “Selectively feeding documents to the media which paints a certain picture is a dangerous endeavour.  The Freedom Trust urges the public to let justice take its course in the interest of all involved.”

In the past few days the spotlight has fallen on Papenfus herself. On the Freedom Trust’s website, Papenfus is described as having “practiced as an attorney from 1997 until she made a family relocation to Hermanus during 2008”. What is not mentioned is that Papenfus was disbarred: she confirmed to the Cape Times on Monday that she had been struck from the roll. Papenfus and her husband Hendrik were also declared insolvent in 2008.

The Freedom Trust website still calls for donations of up to R100 000, although Papenfus told the Cape Times on Monday that they had scrapped this. “Everyone was saying we must be making money off Flippie, and that is why we decided we would not be dealing with the money,” she said. At time of writing, however, there was still a prominent ‘Donate’ option visible on the website.

On Friday Wilhelm Treurnicht will appear in the dock alone, with charges against the deceased Burger to be dropped. In order for Flippie’s case to succeed, the prosecution need only prove assault – not that the assault led to epilepsy and directly set in motion the chain of events leading to Flippie’s hand amputations. Papenfus remains confident of success. “The Freedom Trust does not form part of the investigating team or the medico-legal team. We however trust that they are capable and competent of doing their jobs and that the prosecution would never have been re-instituted had there not been solid ground,” she told the Daily Maverick.

Papenfus maintains that one of the positive aspects of the case is that it has given strength to other farmworkers to report abuses at the hands of farmers, which have often been swept under the rug up till now. “Several new cases have been referred to the SAPS for investigation,” the Freedom Trust announced in a statement last month. “Flippie’s case has made a huge impact on the psyche of farmworkers, who for the first time now have the courage to stand up and claim their own justice.” DM

Read more:

  • Questions surround Flippie’s assault, in the Cape Times

Photo: Flippie Engelbrecht is seen with his parents Flip and Katrina after he received prosthetic hands in Cape Town on Friday, 16 August 2013. Flippie lost his hands after he fell into a fire during an epileptic fit. The youth received prosthetic hands made by Richard van As, a Joburg carpenter who lost four fingers in a circular saw accident in 2011 and now makes prosthetic “Robohands” with the aid of a 3D printer. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA

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