OP-ED

Coligny ‘sunflower’ case tells us white lives matter more than black lives in small-town South Africa

By Pierre De Vos 1 December 2020

Farmers Pieter Doorewaard and Phillip Schutte at the Mmabatho Magistrates’ Court during sentencing proceedings on January 28, 2019 for the 2017 murder of 16-year-old Matlhomola Mosweu. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Tiro Ramatlhatse)

Last week the Supreme Court of Appeal reversed a decision of the High Court and acquitted Pieter Doorewaard and Philip Schutte of the murder of 15-year-old Mathlomola Jonas Mosweu near the town of Coligny. The judges (in three separate judgments) all agreed that the police botched the investigation. But the judgment remained silent on the impact that racial attitudes in the town (including attitudes of white superiority) may have had on the way the matter played out.

If you read the Afrikaans newspaper Rapport this past Sunday, you might well be convinced that Pieter Doorewaard and Philip Schutte were victims of a grave injustice, framed by the police, the prosecution and a High Court judge for the murder of a 15-year-old black child. If you are an acolyte of Gauteng MEC Panyazi Lesufi, you may believe that the two white farmers are indeed guilty of murdering Mathlomola Jonas Mosweu, and that the SCA judgment was a travesty of justice inspired by judicial racism.

Pieter Doorewaard. (Photo: Deon Raath)

However, if you actually read the SCA judgment (which, evidently, few of those who have commented on the case have done), you may be left with more questions than answers. You might also be left wondering to what extent life in the town of Coligny is still structured according to the logic of apartheid and what role that played in the matter.

What we do know is that the 15-year-old Mathlomola Mosweu died after being “arrested” by two farmers for allegedly stealing sunflowers worth about R60. The farmers claimed that, after apprehending him, they transported Mosweu on the back of a bakkie to the police station, but that he jumped from the moving bakkie and died as a result. (His death was ascribed to “blunt force trauma”.) The state alleged that the farmers threw the deceased from the back of the moving bakkie. The state based its case almost exclusively on the evidence of one eyewitness, whose evidence turned out to be unreliable and contradictory.

The SCA found that the state had not proven its case beyond reasonable doubt. In our law, the evidence from a single witness can only sustain a conviction if it meets certain requirements. Honesty alone is not sufficient. The witness must also be reliable.

The evidence of the single witness in this case was not reliable, not least because the witness first stated that the deceased was thrown from the bakkie three times, only to later retract this and to say he was only thrown off the bakkie once. (In the judgment of Ponnan JA, he goes as far as stating that “his evidence has been deliberately fabricated”, but the majority declined to endorse this view.)

To make matters worse, the police failed to gather any other evidence that may or may not have corroborated the evidence of the single witness. It even transpired that the police had forensic analysis done on a bakkie (several days after the incident) without establishing whether the bakkie was the one used in the incident.

The police also seemed at first to show inordinate deference to the suspects in the case. As Judge Molemela points out in his judgment, when the two accused refused to go back to the scene of the accident as required by the relevant legislation, the investigating officer “did absolutely nothing about that”. And contrary “to basic police procedures”, the investigating officer failed to obtain a written statement from one of the accused who drove the vehicle and failed to open a docket on the alleged accident. It was only the violent reaction of community members that triggered the opening of a docket.

Extraordinarily:

“After taking down a statement implicating the appellants in murder and other serious charges, [the police investigator] did not inspect the scene of the crime and record his observations. Instead, the scene was visited days after the incident, and only after the intervention of senior officers.”

Where does that leave us in trying to understand what really happened in this case? In my view, the court cannot be faulted for acquitting the accused of murder because the state simply did not present sufficient evidence to convict them. What we do not know (and now cannot know) is whether the State’s case would have been stronger if the police had not completely bungled the investigation.

While some have relied on the acquittal to back up their strongly held view that the two accused were the victims of a grave injustice, with the trial judge as the main culprit, this is not a finding explicitly made in any of the judgments. On the contrary, two of the three judges had reservations about the version of events presented by the accused, casting doubt on what really happened that day. In a pivotal passage, Ledwaba AJA found that:

“The appellants’ version regarding how the deceased apparently vanished from the vehicle is not satisfactory. However, even assuming as correct [the single witness’s] testimony, all that was mentioned was the boy’s injuries and the fact that Mr Doorewaard was the driver and the onus remains on the State to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In other words, the judge was not satisfied that the accused’s version of what happened was true. But not being satisfied by the version of events offered by the accused in a criminal trial is not sufficient to convict the accused of a crime. For a court to convict, the state must present credible evidence of the guilt of the accused, something it seemed to have failed to do so in this case.

In the light of these reservations about the version of events offered by the accused, it is not clear to me that Pieter Doorewaard and Philip Schutte were necessarily the victims of an injustice (except in the narrow legal sense that any conviction overturned on appeal would constitute an injustice). This view is strengthened by the fact that Molemela JA, in a minority judgment, held that the accused should have been convicted of culpable homicide, for negligently causing the death of Mathlomola Mosweu, the one person who certainly was a victim in this case.

At the very least, the fact that the accused left the seriously injured boy on the side of the road, instead of taking him to the hospital, and did not attempt to provide any medical assistance to the victim, suggests a callous disregard for the life of a black youngster. What kind of person does that? While Ponnan JA (in a third judgment) accepted the accused’s excuse that they did not believe that it was safe in the circumstances to transport him to the clinic, Ponnan JA had no answer to the observation of Molemela AJ that:

“I find it quite shocking that from the police station, the two appellants went back to their workshop and continued about their daily farming activities as if nothing exceptional had happened. Despite their awareness about the serious nature of the deceased’s injuries, none of them later bothered to find out what had ultimately transpired. I do appreciate that this morally reprehensible conduct has no bearing on the inferences that may be drawn in relation to the crime committed.”

Apart from the shocking and perhaps wilful incompetence of the police, what struck me most when reading the judgment was what it revealed about the racial hierarchy in Coligny. The two accused testified that they often “arrested” young black men and brought them to the police, who welcomed this. Their authority to do so had never been questioned until their arrest.

Moreover, for the accused it was unthinkable that any black teenager would even consider defying their authority by trying to escape. It was also perfectly normal for the accused to refuse to accompany the police back to the scene of the youngster’s death. This was just the way that things worked in Coligny.

To understand why this suggests that Coligny is still structured according to the logic of apartheid, imagine what would have happened if the accused were black and the victim white. Imagine it had been two black men in a bakkie who had “arrested” one of the white teenage sons of Doorewaard or Philip Schutte for stealing fruit from a black neighbours’ yard. Imagine the boy had somehow died in peculiar circumstances while in the custody of these two black men, and that the two men had not assisted the dying boy or taken him to the hospital or clinic. Imagine the two men had refused to cooperate with the police as required by law and had been allowed by the police to go back to their homes in an informal settlement with apparently no care in the world for the well-being of the white child who died in their custody.

The problem is, of course, that it is difficult to imagine that this could ever have happened in a town like Coligny. If two black men had “arrested” a white teenager, the police may well have treated this as a kidnapping, because the logic of apartheid dictates that black men can never have authority over white children.

The child would probably have resisted the “arrest” because he would not have acknowledged the authority of the two black men – although he would likely also have been scared to death. The police would likely have sprung into action because a white child had been killed, because white lives matter for the police. The police would have forced the two black men to accompany them back to the scene of the child’s death, and it is not far-fetched to imagine that they would have arrested the two men for the killing of the child.

None of this has a direct bearing on whether the accused in this case should have been convicted by the High Court, or whether they should have been acquitted on appeal. But I would argue that it should influence how we interpret the events surrounding the conviction, and later the acquittal, of the two accused. This would force us to ask difficult questions about what justice might look like in a profoundly unjust environment.

It should also give us pause, and make us hesitant to rush to judgment about the exact nature of the injustice that had occurred in this case. DM

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All Comments 23

  • You could hardly put it better. Would be interesting to know how Rapport came to the desicion that their cover page should be filled to the rim with this story. They obviously still do not understand the dynamics of our society!

  • Atrocity was the murder, and appalling injustice that these two are not incarcerated for life. But I wish we could just see this as people doing stuff to other people, instead of calling in the colour of hair and eyes and skin. Socially it would be better described within the power imbalance in our society, with explanations of entitlement of landowners, and just plain terrible states of education in the country. The more we look at colour the more we obfuscate the real reasons for this barbaric behaviour. And the legal system needs adjusting too. It’s always money and power that get free, while the poor disenfranchised (because of poor legal system in my opinion) that get nailed for their bad behaviour. And so they should, of course, but it should be equally meted out for presidents and legless runners and ax murderers from wealthy wine families and rapists and abusers of women and children. Without the expensive fanfair. And without noticing the colour of eyes or anything else, because those are not the issues when it comes to bad behaviour of humans.

  • Shocking beyond description. At very least cannot the accused be charged for facilitating / fomenting racist attitudes and the police charged with neglect and ineptitude?

  • Thank you for the article. To turn parties around and see if I still feel the same about an event is a trick I often employ to expose and confront my own biases. Works well to look at events from different perspectives. Then, some time ago, I realised I only employ this turnaround on certain scenarios, and especially on those where I had to convince others. It became a tool of communication and not self-reflection. And that exposed where my real bias lies.

  • The first part of this is fair and substantive. Certainly confirms the widely known fact that the police are absolutely incapable of even the most basic of tasks. Hardly surprising when their chief is so incompetent as to be regarded invisible. Where it all goes wrong is where Pierre reverts to pure racism by spinning the story around. Is this truly how a legal mind thinks? Black teenager would never try to escape? White teenager would never accept arrest? Police ignore black child death, spring into action for white child death, allege kidnapping? Unbelievable that Pierre can read the minds of teenagers. Just hope he stays away from them.

  • This case was a total mess from just about all points of view. But to write the headline “Coligny ‘sunflower’ case tells us white lives matter more than black lives in small-town South Africa” is pure racism on the part of whoever wrote it. Where is that mentioned in the article? Daily Maverick can do better than that. DM – The Truth!?

  • De Vos aggravates the slander of the innocently jailed victims of this deeply concerning miscarriage of justice while ignoring the judge’s numerous failures in performing his sacred duty, as well as the single witness’s glaring dishonesty. De Vos’s depiction of the falsely accused men’s so-called heartless indifference towards the deceased youth is an example of his pre-set mind. Gabriel Crouse in a podcast for The Daily Friend: When they noticed the youth from the sunflower field was no longer on the bakkie, the two “murderers” turned around and found him lying at the edge of the road, alive but obviously badly injured. They decided not to move him so as not to aggravate his injuries and tried calling an ambulance. To no avail. They asked passers-by not to move the boy but to protect him from oncoming vehicles while they went to alert the police (2 minutes away) and get their assistance in procuring an ambulance. The passers-by agreed and said they would also make calls for an ambulance. At the police station the two men raised the alarm, an ambulance was summoned to the scene and the accident was reported. Sadly, the ambulance took another hour to arrive, without the medical equipment for efficient treatment. The youth dies. This failure of the emergency medical services is mentioned neither by the mainstream media nor the soon-to-be-promoted Judge.
    Instead, dissembly and distortion are employed while evidence remains uninvited.

    • This article just shows how easily a fake news gets traction
      Our “learned friend” gives his biased view of events with carefully selected “facts”… and now this becomes the narrative
      And to still be harping about apartheid 25 years on when no mention is made of how incompetent the police has become over the same time!

      • Very good commentary on Politicsweb this morning. The judiciary is obviously in a poor state and split along racial lines.
        The dark clouds are gathering, beware the Ides of March.

  • One can imagine many things. I can for example, imagine a society in which the citizenry are not allowed to hold children accountable for theft, that doesn’t seem ideal? I have no idea what the accused are, in fact, guilty of. I must trust in the judgement of the courts, I don’t think it should be up to my imagination. By all means, let’s fix policing and redress the patterns of apartheid, but let’s leave the demonisation of groups people out of it.

  • Pierre de Vos, I personally agree with your critique on this whole matter; this judgement leaves more questions than answers. Answers that the legal system needs/must have for a conviction and for the sake of fairness to all parties; you should know that better than us. It is especially difficult in the absence of reliable witnesses and an incapable SAPS investigating Team. I understand all of that. However, for a man of you standing in the community, to have a cheap shot at not only attempting to add a race color to this, but further to cloak the entire Coligny community in a blanket of apartheid style racism is, dispickable. This article of yours has simply added to the racial devide in this country, far beyond what this poor investigation and the resulting reversal of judgement already has.

  • Wow. Vintage South Africanisms abound in the op-ed and in the comments. As a society it is clear to my mind that everything is affected by racial bias, for and against, “white” or “black”. I had somehow not heard about this case but was interested in the perspective of Prof De Vos on a SCA judgment. I haven’t read any of the judgments but I did notice the learned professor launching into sheer speculation as Julian read commented. It took Pieter Schoombe’s comment to tell what happened at the event itself and the efforts to get medical attention for the boy, which throws rather a different light on the events than one could glean elsewhere. I see no evidence that this was a racial issue, save that the protagonists come from different communities but it is concerning that the judge in the lower court convicted on such poor evidence. Very few South African I have met are colour blind, except the youngsters blessed with relatively well off parents who go to school together and know each other as individuals rather than caricatures. Trying to turn every unhappy event into a racial issue seems to make the press happy, but really just hardens attitudes and deepens the rifts we are meant to be trying to bridge. The dysfunctional police force is sadly also helping deepen those rifts. If these two guys really threw a youngster from the back of a moving bakkie they should indeed go to jail. If he jumped rather than go to the police station, it is not really they could have expected.

  • I have always had great respect for Prof De Vos. My question to him is as follows:

    At what stage do we decide that the state had become so completely disfunctional that we are entitled to as citizens take the law into our own hands.

    Anyone who has ever tried to report a crime at a police station will I am sure attest to futility of it.

    In any normal society the theft of produce from a farm would be reported to the police who would at least make some effort to investigate and prevent it from occurring again. This is simply not the case in South Africa hence farmers are left with no alternative but to take action themselves with in this instance a tragic result.

    The root cause of the problem is the disfunctional police and that is unlikely to be fixed any time soon.

  • Reading the news, I can get a bit anxious for the future of the country and the seemingly increasing divisions in society between black and white, rich and poor.
    But its easy to forget that many, many South Africans just want a decent life, and to get on with the business of a normal human existence.
    Yes, racism is a scourge and needs to be addressed – in a country like ours, a basic ability to live respectfully in a multi-cultural, multi-racial society is a fundamental requirement, a fundamental maturity. If this is too much to ask of you, then I don’t think you’re welcome here.
    Yes, inequality and poverty are terrible, and we are largely failing to redress these. Will the wealthy need to sacrifice for this to be addressed? Very likely. If you’re not prepared for some sacrifice, and for some personal effort to help the situation (other than just paying taxes), then I’m not sure you’re welcome either. But we also need to acknowledge that poverty isn’t going to be addressed in an environment where many of our leaders are corrupt and national resources flow to benefit a small group of politically connected rather than the majority.
    While the immature cannot integrate in our multi-racial country, and the greedy undermine efforts to improve the welfare of our population, most people are decent, and many are doing their bit to be helpful with regard to their fellow-citizens. In the gloom and conflict of the news, its easy to forget this huge force for good. Please let’s grow this mass of positivity, this taking individual responsibility, however small our contribution. It seems we might need to rely on this more, and on politicians less.

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