On 26 November last year the Cape Times led with the story of a vicious racial attack by a gang of young white youths on a 52-year-old Coloured cleaning lady outside of the Tiger Tiger nightclub in Claremont Cape Town on the night of the 17/18 October 2014.
The article by the reporter Carlo Petersen – headed ‘3 in dock for attempted murder of cleaner’ – stated that:
“Three young men – one a UCT student – have been charged with attempted murder after cleaner Delia Adonis was brutally assaulted in another “race-related” case in Cape Town.
Chad De Matos, 19, Aaron Mack, 20, and Mitchell Turner, 20, appeared in the Wynberg Magistrate’s Court, where they were also charged with assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm and crimen injuria on Tuesday.
De Matos and Turner, who are from East London, and Mack, from Knysna, were likened by State prosecutor Nathan Johnson to the Waterkloof Four, who were convicted of the murder of an unidentified vagrant in Pretoria’s Moreleta Park in 2001.
Johnson told the court were it not for Adonis’s son Tesh-Lee, who stopped the beating, she would surely be dead.”
Johnson claimed that the five men had viciously assaulted Adonis as punishment for earlier coming to the aid of a man, Duncan Hendry, 21, that they had been beating up earlier.
Despite the efforts of their lawyer, William Booth, De Matos and the others ended up spending two nights in Pollsmoor Prison, after Johnson insisted that bail not be granted. It took an urgent High Court application from Booth to get the three youths released.
The article, following as it did on a number of other reports (mostly by the same journalist) of an apparent epidemic of racist white on black violence in Cape Town, triggered outrage.
In the comments beneath the article, posted on IOL, one reader stated: “I hope that club gets closed down, and these idiots should have their faces shown so that they can get moered to death.” Another that: “It's funny how these pink, racist bullies mostly pick on smaller, weaker and defenseless (sic) people - especially women.”
The DA national spokesperson Phumzile van Damme rushed out a statement welcoming the charging of these young men with attempted murder. She commented: “There is absolutely no place for racism and racially-motivated violence in our society. We trust that justice will be done in this matter and that the tough stance taken by prosecutors will act as a deterrent to racially-motivated violence in our society.”
In an opinion piece for the Daily Maverick Mariann Thamm wrote that, that five young white men, from ‘good’ homes, “could so easily resort to violence and racial insult points, once again, to the dangers of raising white children in an ahistorical void in this country.”
She suggested that an appropriate punishment for “these young white racists is to be sentenced to a year of cleaning up the porta loos our fellow residents in informal settlements have been forced to use.” This might, she added, “prompt an inward journey of self-discovery, respect and humility.
As someone who was a court and crime reporter for 38 years covering cases ranging from the Biko inquest to the Boesak trial, I was personally troubled by aspects of the initial reporting.
The headline lacked the word ‘alleged’ and the article sought to create the impression that the five accused had, beyond reasonable doubt and with intent, attempted to murder a middle aged women because she comes from a different ethnic group to themselves.
I also wondered why UCT was mentioned so prominently and why no reference was made to other educational institutions where the co-accused of Chad de Matos might be studying.
It also struck me as odd, given the ubiquity of cellphones with cameras, that the newspaper failed to publish any pictures of Adonis’ allegedly life threatening injuries.
… and contradictions
I gave this no further thought until another article appeared in early December 2014 headlined, ‘Infamous Tiger Tiger faces closure’. Again citing Nathan Johnson as its authority the article claimed: ‘In the light of two court cases linked to racial assaults, a Cape Town nightclub risks being shut down for failing to curb drunken and disorderly behaviour of its patrons.’
That night I was visiting a friend whose son had just graduated from UCT and I asked him if he had ever been there and, if so, what his opinion of the nightclub was. “Classy”, he said. “And safe”.
Puzzled, I sent an email the next morning to the Claremont ward councillor, Ian Iversen, and asked whether the nightclub was a renowned trouble spot and a hotbed of drunken, violent racism. Here is his reply:
“I know the Tiger Tiger night club quite well and have met with the owner recently. As night clubs go in the Claremont area, Tiger Tiger is well run and considered, I understand, as the top club. They have recently introduced more security outside the club and in the parking area as well to deal with possible negative activities. My daughter used to go there years ago with her friends of all colours and race was never an issue.”
Subsequent emails to JP Smith, Mayco member for Safety and Security in the Cape Town municipality and his colleague, Nathan Ladegourdie, a senior member of the municipality’s liquor and vice units, revealed that they had never received any complaints about this nightclub and that it complied in every respect with all legal requirements.
As this was completely at odds with the picture being painted by reporters Carlo Petersen and Kieran Legg of the Cape Argus I phoned Shaun Lewis, the manager of the nightclub who was cited in the above-mentioned article about the imminent ‘closure’ of this supposedly ‘infamous’ night spot.
Lewis said that the claim that the night cub was going to close was devoid of truth and invited me to visit its vibrant Facebook page.
He said there were almost three dozen CCTV cameras in the nightclub and on its precincts and so the fulltime security personnel employed by the nightclub swiftly observe and deal with the very occasional quarrels that break out.
On the night of 17 October last year, he told me, there was brief fracas outside the nightclub between two groups of youths. The bouncers swiftly separated the groups, ordering them to disperse in different directions.
Delia Adonis had chosen to involve herself in this fracas and, as a consequence of this decision had sustained a four centimetre long cut on her face.
She then walked, unassisted, into the club and complained to Lewis saying that she had been assaulted by patrons. Her gait was normal and she was bleeding slightly from the cut on her face. Security personnel offered to dress the cut.
This was verified by CCTV footage.
In fact, as the medical evidence indicates, the only injury she sustained during a fracas in which she chose to involve herself was that cut.
Lewis said that he had not been interviewed by the police but had been interviewed by Christian Botha, a private investigator hired by a relative of the accused Tiger Tiger Five, East London businessman Mark Povey, who had also brought in advocate William Booth as counsel for the five youths.
Upon being appointed by Povey, Botha immediately drove from East London to Cape Town. What his investigation revealed is frightening and raises worrying questions about the administration of justice by the NPA in the Western Cape.
What actually happened?
When Nathan Johnson walked into court at the beginning of this trial in November last year he had in his docket - which is now part of the court record and is thus in the public domain - several sworn statements which outlined a completely different series of events to that which he presented in court.
The statements detail how the five youths, all friends who had attended school together in East London, had gone to the Tiger Tiger nightclub after a game of social soccer.
As the designated driver who was to remain sober, De Matos left the nightclub before the others and fell asleep in their car in the nightclub’s parking lot. He was suddenly woken by the urgent shouts of his friends that a fight was in progress. They all bundled into the car and, as he hastily drove away, he saw a woman chasing the car swinging a mop.
That woman was Delia Adonis and Christian Botha told me that in a confused and fast-moving melee in a dark parking lot she had assumed that she had been struck by one of the Tiger Tiger Five.
It is worth emphasising that De Matos was asleep during the fracas. As the statements in Johnson’s docket stressed, De Matos did not touch or speak to Adonis.
Nonetheless, he was accused by Johnson and the Cape Times of attempted murder, of smashing Adonis to the ground with racist intent; of kicking her; of leaving her drenched in blood and so brutally assaulted that ‘she could not move’.
For an accused who has not spoken to the complainant to be charged with crimen injuria is surely without precedent in the history of South Africa’s jurisprudence.
Johnson’s suggestion that De Matos, and the others, deserved to be equated with the Waterkloof Four was equally bizarre. De Matos is slightly-built, wears spectacles, has no previous convictions, and is, according to Mark Povey, someone who “would not hurt a fly”. He has, friends at UCT tell me, consistently achieved amongst the highest marks in his group of first year students in the university’s science faculty.
The supposed motive for the attack – namely that the Tiger Tiger Five had attacked Adonis in retaliation for intervening to save Hendry – also proved to be baseless. In his police statement dated 18 October 2014 Hendry had clearly identified and named his alleged assailant, and it was not one of the Tiger Tiger Five.
Unsurprisingly, when Director of Public Prosecutions in the Western Cape, advocate Rodney de Kock was presented by Booth with the evidence collected by Christian Botha, he withdrew all charges against the accused.
On 26 June Die Burger reported that charges had been dropped, and the five youth effectively exonerated. This information was only communicated to readers of the Cape Times three days later in an article by Carlo Petersen which was so slanted that it subsequently earned the censure of the Press Ombudsman.
The Tiger Tiger Five case was a travesty of justice, a reprehensible combination of malicious prosecution and trial by media. Although charges were ultimately dropped De Matos and others were imprisoned for no reason, while being subjected to extraordinary vilification and racial abuse in the press and on social media.
This case was one of a number where the Cape Times (and Cape Argus) had given extraordinary prominence to alleged incidents of white on black assault being aggressively prosecuted by Johnson. In January 2015 Johnson claimed that “These incidents seem to be a growing problem” and from henceforth “the State’s stance will in future be to oppose bail in such matters.”
Yet, in at least three cases, over subsequent months, the evidence was so weak that the matter never actually made it to trial.
The first was on March 26 when Monique Fuller who allegedly racially abused and assaulted a policeman had the case against her struck from the roll. The second was on June 26 when the state withdrew charges against the Tiger Tiger Five. The third was on July 21 when charges against Talana Jo Huyshamer, who was alleged to have racially abused a person of colour in a parking altercation, were withdrawn. In each case the NPA conceded the lack of substantiating evidence.
Each of these stories had been given sensational, often front page, coverage by the Cape Times and the Argus. News of the collapse of the State case was, in each instance, given considerably less play.
All three stories, I suspect, were motivated by a desire to construct a narrative depicting white South Africans as intractably racist and Cape Town as an irredeemably racist city. The prominence given to De Matos’ UCT affiliation by the Cape Times probably stemmed too from similar motives.
What is going on here and why are no questions being asked by MPs, civil rights NGOs and the media (excluding, obviously, the Cape Times and the Argus)?
In particular, what does Sanef - which is supposedly ‘committed to encouraging ethically-driven media, and providing an environment for ethics discourse in the South African media’ - have to say about this pattern of misreporting?