Defend Truth

THE END OF A TRAGEDY

Father of murdered student Hannah Cornelius dies — a gentle giant who stood among the ruins of his family

Father of murdered student Hannah Cornelius dies — a gentle giant who stood among the ruins of his family
Retired magistrate Willem Cornelius (centre), outside the Western Cape High Court in 2018 before the sentencing of the four men who raped and killed his student daughter Hannah. Willem Cornelius died on Friday, 9 December. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

The Cornelius family represents something so deeply and tragically South African and their horror, loss, grief and pain is shared by millions caught in what can only be called a war. “Me and my son, we are not a family. We are the survivors who live in the ruins of what once was,” said Willem Cornelius.

Willem Cornelius, the father of murdered Stellenbosch student Hannah Cornelius, died in the family’s Scarborough home on Friday, 9 December, surrounded by extended family and loved ones.

Cornelius, a former magistrate, was diagnosed with cancer about three months ago. He was 64 and is survived by his son, Andries, who is being cared for at a centre for autistic children in Bonnievale. He is much loved by his aunt, uncle and cousins, who are now his only surviving relations.

Testifying at the sentencing in November 2018 of the four men who gang raped and stabbed his daughter to death before dropping a rock on her head, Cornelius said his family died that day and was buried later when his wife Anna “walked into the ocean for a short while and never came back”.

“Me and my son, we are not a family. We are the survivors who live in the ruins of what once was,” he told the court.

In September 2017, Anna and Willem approached this journalist about their intention to establish the Hannah Cornelius Foundation in Ocean View. The foundation was wound down shortly after Willem’s cancer diagnosis.

Making meaning

Anna was small in stature and was a keen hiker and swimmer. She was the driving energy behind the family’s attempt to make sense and meaning out of the senseless. Willem was there too, but quieter, tired, carrying on. Both were lawyers.

I visited Willem a few times after Anna’s death by drowning in March 2018. During my last visit to their home with the beautiful blue door and pathway overlooking the ocean, it was winter and cold. The house felt like a morgue.

There was Hannah’s bedroom upstairs with beautiful pictures tracing her short life.

Then there was Anna and Willem’s bedroom. At the time of the visit, he had left Anna’s toothbrush as she had done the day she died. Her books were still piled next to her bed.

Anna had taken me through this house, into Hannah’s room with the framed lullaby specially composed for her by her grandfather, the famous composer Peter de Villiers. She showed me the art, Hannah’s as well, the books, the memories all around.

After Anna’s death, Willem told me he mostly slept downstairs in a study surrounded by the books he loved. He had a remarkable sense of humour.

“Well, what more can I lose?” he asked, dragging on the cheap cigarettes he liked to buy down in Kalk Bay or Simon’s Town where he used to be the local magistrate. He would hop on his bike and take the scenic route. He said he felt free on the motorcycle.

What becomes of the broken-hearted: Parents of murdered Stellenbosch student vow to plough back

The Cornelius family represents something so deeply and tragically South African and their horror, loss, grief and pain are shared by millions caught in what is a war, let’s call it that.

The Cornelius family knew the pain of others.

Rest in peace, fine gentleman. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted