The curious case of the Coligny trial

Rian Malan writes on the slender basis on which Pieter Doorewaard and Phillip Schutte were convicted of murder

It is judgement day in the sunflower murder case. The parking lot outside Mmabatho High Court is clogged with police vehicles. Thirty-odd EFF members are dancing and singing under thorn trees. A fleet of bakkies and cars arrives, bringing Pieter Doorewaard (28) and Phillip Schutte (35) to hear their fate. The two Afrikaners have been found guilty of murdering a teenager caught stealing sunflower seeds on their boss’s property, and then kidnapping a witness in a futile attempt to shut him up. Today they are here to be sentenced.

Judge Ronald Hendricks appears, resplendent in his scarlet robes, TV lights gleaming off his shiny brown pate. He begins with a brief summary of his earlier findings before turning to the task at hand. You have been found guilty of “disgraceful and appalling crimes,” he tells the accused. Crimes that tore a small town apart, thereby precipitating a “revolt” on the part of black people grown weary of white racism.

According to Hendricks, Coligny’s blacks were also let down by police, who failed to “perform their duties” and arrest the murderers when the community appealed to them to do so. Hendricks characterized the riots that followed as “self-help,” which is fair comment, if not in exactly the sense intended. All Coligny’s liquor stores were looted, along with dozens of spaza shops in a satellite township. The targets of these attacks were whites and Asians, some of whom also had their homes burned down.

On the other hand, Hendricks conceded that the accused had not “directly” intended to murder the sunflower thief, and that he would therefore not impose the most severe sentences allowed by law. Doorewaard would spend an effective 18 years years in prison, while Schutte served 23.

These prison terms came as a disappointment to the father of the deceased, Saki Dingake, who said the judge’s leniency made him feel unwell. “I was hoping for something higher,” he said. A representative for the EFF at the court said his party had also wanted the murderers to be put away forever. “Our province is infested with racism,” he said. “We were hoping life sentences would send a clear message.” The NPA said the sentences were “appropriate”.

And so, at last, justice is done in the case of Matlhomola Moshoeu, the diminutive 16-year-old found lying on a gravel road with a broken neck on April 20, 2017. To his right, on that morning, lay the sunflower field where he was caught stealing seeds. To his left, mealie fields marched over the horizon. His family home – a shack in an informal settlement -- lay just over the horizon. His mother's heart would soon be broken.

One wishes it were otherwise, but we won’t hear much more about Moshoeu in this story. It not about him. It is about the extraordinary trial that led to his alleged killers’ conviction.


Part one – the witness

If the sunflower murder case ever becomes a movie, the narrative will be structured around the life and times of Bonakele Bendel Pakisi of Tlhabologang, Coligny’s satellite township. At the time of these events, Mr. Pakisi was 26. He lived in a house inherited from his late parents and presented himself on Facebook as a dashing cosmopole, consorting with beautful women and posing alongside gleaming new vehicles. In reality, he was unemployed, aside from sums earned as a part-time informal-sector butcher. Indeed, he was so poor that his girlfriend Elsie had to lend him a cellphone so that they could communicate.

According to Pakisi, that cellphone was in his pocket on April 20, 2017, the day of the alleged murder. This information is taken from statement he gave to police a month later. In it, Pakisi says his day began at 6am, when he went to see an Asian trader who had asked him to help slaughter a cow. But when he got there the cow was not ready, so he asked the trader to advance him R150 and agreed to come back later. He then convinced the owner of a nearby liquor store to open up and sell him eight quarts of beer. He put the beers in his bag and set off to drink them with a policeman friend. 

Just after 7am he was walking past a sunflower field on the outskirts of town when he heard a gunshot. He looked up and saw a fat white man running around in the sunflowers, trying to capture a young boy who had apparently been stealing sunflower seeds. Another white was sitting behind the wheel of a bakkie parked on a nearby footpath.

Pakisi walked closer. Saw the fat white man collar the boy and load him onto the back of the bakkie. Heard the boy scream, “Mama, help me, I am dying.” The bakkie then accelerated into the sunflower field, where fat white man threw deceased off the loadbed. Fat white man alighted, picked him up and repeated the exercise. Boy was thrown off three times in all.

At this point, the whites noticed Pakisi watching. One of them boarded a quad bike, drove over to him and asked, what did you see? Pakisi said, I saw nothing, but the white man didn't buy it. He drew a gun and ordered Pakisi onto the back seat of the quad bike, and thence into the load bed of the bakkie. Bakkie and quad bike drove in convoy to a nearby farm gate, where the whites abandoned the bike before setting off on an hours-long hell ride into the surrounding countryside. Fat white man sat on the back of a bakkie, holding a gun on his two captives – Pakisi and the sunflower thief, who lay motionless in the load bed, bleeding from the mouth, ears and nose.

According to Pakisi, the whites feared that the boy might die and were determined to terrorize him into keeping his mouth shut. Towards this end, they stopped from time to time in lonely places, where he was beaten, shot at, forced to drink hard liquor and eat his own vomit. In the end, one of the whites knocked him out with a heavy object and he woke up alone in the veld.

Back home, Pakisi heard that a young boy, later identified as Moshoeu, had been fatally injured in an accident near the sunflower field that morning. Not so, said Pakisi. I was there. He began to talk about the dreadful things he had seen and experienced. Word spread. Militants began to mutter about apartheid-style atrocities and heavy-handed Boer racists. By Sunday, those militants were by some accounts threatening to attack police unless the killers were arrested immediately.

When the sun rose the following morning, the police cells were still empty, so the militants set forth on a protest march down Coligny’s main shopping street. There were only five policemen in Coligny that day, the rest of the town’s force having been sent to quell violent service delivery protests in two nearby towns. The march turned into a riot. Dozens of shops and bottle stores were looted. Armed white right-wingers arrived to defend their terrified kinsfolk. Major violence threatened.

At around 5pm the following evening, two white males contacted police to say they wished to turn themselves in. Pieter Doorewaard and Phillip Schutte worked for Pieter Karsten, Coligny’s richest farmer and businessman. They said, it was us at the sunflower field, driving our boss’s Ford Ranger. We spotted a juvenile stealing sunflower heads and carried out a citizen’s arrest that involved no violence at all. We were taking this boy to the police station when he jumped off the back of our bakkie and fatally injured himself. It was an accident, they said, and Pakisi’s story is a complete fabrication.

At this point, police investigations were still in their infancy, and the cause of death had yet to be determined. This didn’t stop politicians like provincial premier Supra Mahomapelo from declaring that there could be “no confusion” about where the guilt lay: it was the Boers. “Had they caught a white child, I don’t think they would have done it,” he thundered.

After several nights in police cells, Doorewaard and Schutte applied for bail. The magistrate appointed to hear their application chickened out when Coligny’s courthouse was surrounded by school children chanting, “The police are thugs and whites are killers.” A braver man, Makgaola Foso, stepped into his shoes, weighed the evidence and granted bail. The militants rioted again, burning several more houses owned by whites and Indians.

By now, Coligny was world famous. News accounts tended to gloss over the fact that the entire conflagration had been triggered by a lone witness whose credibility had yet to be tested. In South Africa, this was not an important factor anyway, because Bendel Pakisi’s narrative had stirred memories of a time when white farmers were masters of all they surveyed, given to disciplining “their” blacks with klaps, sjamboks and sometimes guns. For some black politicians and Twitter fanatics, the sunflower murder proved that this era had never ended. For them, this transformed the case into a morality play that had little to do with guilt or innocence and everything to do with a single question: would the whites, at last, be made to pay?

Part two -- The trial

Mmabatho High Court, March 20, 2018. Sharp-tongued and stylish, Judge Ronald Hendricks is a graduate of Pretoria University’s law school. His record is unblemished save for a platinum royalties dispute in which he was criticized for favouring government-aligned Bakgatla royals over the claims of their subjects. He was an ANC member until he became a judge in 2003.

From the outset, it was clear that state’s case in the coming trial would rest largely on the testimony of a single witness, the aforementioned Bendel Pakisi. Such cases are governed by a huge body of legal precedent stating that a sole witness must be held to a high standard of reliability, and confirmed where possible by evidence from independent outsiders.

When the sunflower murder first made headlines, it seemed that such witnesses would be fairly easy to find. The crime scene lay within sight of a sprawling informal settlement, and beside a fairly heavily travelled road. According to the Boers, Moshoeu was not alone that morning. He had a companion who hid away among the sunflowers, and might have seen what happen next. If not, there was a farmhouse 200m away. Anyone present there that morning would surely have heard a gunshot followed by screams and a revving engine.

There were three more potential witnesses working in the municipal graveyard 700m away, close to the spot where the Boers allegedly dumped their quad bike.

A kilo or so further on, on the outskirts of Coligny, there are several grain silos with a parking lot attached. This is a public space, normally full of trucks on a business morning. Maybe someone saw a bakkie pull up that morning, carrying on its load bed a bearded white man holding two black captives at gunpoint.

If not, detectives could have tried talking to Pakisi’s neighbours. According to Pakisi, the Boer killers showed up on his doorstep around 4am one morning, threatening to kill him if he didn’t shut up. Surely someone heard the roar of their engine, and the sound of them banging on Pakisi’s door.

If all else failed, there was an aspect of Pakisi’s story that could have been corroborated almost effortlessly. He claimed that the Boers repeatedly assaulted him with “fists, feet and open hands” before knocking him out with a blow to the back of the head. By his own account, this left him with injuries (cuts on the mouth and a swollen eye) that would have been visible to everyone he dealt with in the next several days. This included several friends, a school principal, a cousin and at least four policemen or women, all of whom would surely have been willing to testify that Pakisi bore the stigmata of his ordeal at the murderers’ hands.

The absence of any such evidence was the great mystery of the sunflower trial, because it would instantly have sealed Doorewaard and Schutte’s fate. Instead, Pakisi stood alone throughout, telling a story that remained uncorroborated in all its essentials. Why? It’s hard to say, because huge chunks of the police investigation are a closed book to outsiders.

At the start of the trial, Brigadier Clifford Kgorane, head of North West Province’s organized crime unit, took the witness stand and told how he was sent to Coligny on the morning of April 24, 2017, to put an end to the anarchy that had almost engulfed the town. He arrived to find the police station under siege by protestors. He invited them inside to air their complaints. They introduced him to Pakisi, who had by that time produced a statement formalizing his charges against Doorewaard and Schutte.

After hearing Pakisi’s tale, Kgorane set forth to do some detective work. He drove Pakisi to the spot where he’d allegedly seen a bakkie careening around the sunflower field while a fat white man repeatedly hurled the deceased off the loadbed. He found some fading tyre tracks on a footpath, but there was no trail of crushed plants to mark the passage of a heavy vehicle. He searched for spent cartridges at locations where Pakisi claimed he was shot at. Again, the effort was futile. Finally, Kgorane ordered forensics to seize and examine the accused’s bakkie for blood stains. None were found.

Kgorane nevertheless felt that “all the elements of murder” were present in Pakisi’s sworn statement, and that it was enough to go on with in the meantime. He ordered the suspects to be arrested in public, in accordance with the demands of the protestors outside. In another move intended to relieve political pressure, he removed the officer handling the sunflower investigation and appointed one of his subordinates, Lt. Col Petrus Nkosi, in his stead. After that, Brigadier Kgorane returned to the provincial capital.

Kgorane was unable to say what happened next, because he was not the investigating officer. If the court wanted to know about subsequent detective work, he said, it have to ask Warrant Officer P.N. Seponkane and Lt. Col Petrus Nkosi, both of whom were expected to testify in due course.

WO Seponkane is a detective based in Coligny’s police station. In the aftermath of Moshoeu’s death, he opened an inquest docket and then sat back to wait for the pathologists to determine Moshoeu’s cause of death. Discussions in court suggest that he and Pakisi knew each other, and that there was “bad blood” between them as a result of an earlier arrest involving public drinking.

According to Pakisi, a crowd turned up on Seponkane’s doorstep a few hours after Moshoeu’s death. As he described it, the crowd consisted of “the community” and “EFF people” who were “very angry” about the manner in which Seponkane was dragging his feet in the sunflower investigation. “I was present,” said Pakisi. “They listened me while I explained them. Seponkane said I should leave because I am mentally disturbed. On that same day he ran to the police station because he said the community wanted to assault him and they even wanted to burn his house.”

Is this true? Not according to a statement sworn by Stanny Mnyakana, principal of one of Coligny’s primary schools. Three days after the incident at the sunflower field, on a Sunday afternoon, Mr. Mnyakana was watching a soccer game when Bendel Pakisi pitched up in the company of friends identified as Steve and Tebele, who asked the principal to listen to Pakisi’s story. Pakisi proceeded to talk about seeing “two white males” committing murder in the sunflower field. Steve said he was planning a protest march for the following morning. “I told them this was not the correct procedure,” said Mnyakana. “Let’s inform the police rather than resorting to protest.”

“I then called WO Seponkane,” he continued. “WO Seponkane was not in possession of a state vehicle but he set out on foot to collect the vehicle at the police station and came to meet us at the (soccer) ground. WO Seponkane then took Bendel to his office and obtained his statement.”

Aspects of this statement would later be disputed, but we will return to that in due course. What is important for now is that Pakisi initially told Seponkane the same story he’d told Mr. Mnyakana – the killers were “two white males.” Next day, Pakisi repeated this version to Brig Kgorane, who was taken to the spot where Pakisi had seen “two white males” throwing a young boy off the back of their bakkie. Kgorane noted Pakisi’s descriptions and passed them on to crime intelligence officers, who were ordered to trace and arrest “two suspects.”

Kgorane exited at this point and Lt Col Nkosi took over investigation. A month later, according to Nkosi, Pakisi announced that he was dissatisfied with the statement taken by Seponkane and wanted to swear a replacement. When this document came to light in court ten months later, it contained a perplexing change: the number of white suspects had grown from two to three.

Blame for this “error” was initially laid at the door of WO Seponkane, with Pakisi claiming that Seponkane told him to sign blank pages and then added false details to his statement in what was presumably an attempt to discredit him. It might have ended there if Brigadier Kgorane and others hadn’t already sworn to the same story: Pakisi initially said there were two white killers, not three. This was enormously important detail. In court, Pakisi said he was watching from 15m away when the whites first threw the deceased off their bakkie. In the next several hours, he repeatedly stood face-to-face with his white abductors while they punched and manhandled him. How could he possibly be confused about their number?

Pressed to explain the discrepancy, Pakisi pointed fingers at the police. I didn’t change my story, he insisted. It is their fault. “Is Warrant Officer Seponkane not able to come here in court and answer for himself?,” he asked. “I cannot answer for him.” He was equally adamant that he’d informed Kgorane about the Third Man. Asked why the brigadier had testified otherwise under oath, Pakisi stood his ground. “I explained to him about three people,” he declared. “(Kgorane) said he would have to do his duty in the correct manner and that the third person must be apprehended.” 

Someone had to be lying here. If Pakisi was correct, it had to be the policemen. Conversely, if the cops were correct, Pakisi was the liar, and a totally unreliable witness to boot. Lt. Col. Nkosi was positioned to break the deadlock, because he was by several accounts at Kgorane’s side during conversations like the one above. If he sided with Kgorane and confirmed Seponkane’s version – Pakisi initially spoke of two killers, not three -- the state case might have collapsed right there.

Perhaps that is why lead prosecutor Advocate Rapula Molefe closed his case without calling either of the investigating officers. This created huge problems for the accused, whose fate rested on proving that Pakisi’s testimony was not to be trusted. According to the court record, a defence lawyer telephoned Seponkane during a break in the trial and asked if he was willing to testify. He initially said yes, but changed his mind a day later, informing the defence team he was unable to help “in light of the fact that he is fearing for his own safety and also for the safety of his family.”

With these two investigating officers out of the picture, the trial came to turn on discrepancies between Pakisi’s sworn statements and his evidence in court. This was a gruelling process that lasted almost four days and often ended in confusion, usually because the statement-takers were not on hand to resolve disputes about what exactly Pakisi told them.

In fairness, the arc of Pakisi’s narrative retained its overall shape, but details kept changing. In statement 1, for instance, Pakisi sees white males throwing the sunflower thief off their bakkie just after 9.10 am. It was common cause that the accused showed up at the police station to report what they termed an accident at 9.45 am. This left too little time for the Boers to take Pakisi on an extended hell ride into the surrounding countryside, with four protracted stops along the way. This potentially serious problem vanishes in statement 2, where Pakisi says he reached the sunflower field just after 7am.

In statement 2, Pakisi says the Boers ordered him to strip off his jersey and mop up the blood streaming from Pakisi’s mouth and nose. This is said to have happened in the sunflower field, at the very start of his ordeal. In court, he said this incident happened hours later, on the banks of a farm dam.

In statements 1 and 2, Pakasi says the Boers shot at him with a rifle. In his evidence-in-chief in court, he said the Boers were armed only with handguns.

In court, Pakisi insisted that he’d tried to report the sunflower murder to police hours after it happened, only to be chased away by a female officer. As Pakisi put it, “She said I am drunk I should go away otherwise they will arrest me.” In a written statement, he tells a radically different story: “I did not go straight to the police station to report the matter. The reason I did not go to the police station is that I was afraid I may come in contact with the suspects on the way.”

In statement 2, Pakisi goes on at some length about events at a place called Hanwell, taken to be a reference to Henwil Chickens, an industrial chicken processing plant about 25km outside Coligny. Pakisi was expected to take the judge to Hanwell during an inspection in loco, but Pakisi avoided the place entirely. The defence put it to Pakisi that he did so because the chicken plant employs 100 people, some of whom might reasonably be expected to have noticed a macabre cavalcade passing – Pakisi running for his life with a Ford Ranger bakkie on his heels – if such a thing had really happened. At which point the witness dropped a bombshell. “The names you are calling they are like foreign to me,” he said. “I am hearing them for the first time from you.”

Counsel for the defence reached for the relevant statement and read Pakisi’s own words back to him: “We reached Hanwell abattoir and stopped the van there.” And then asked the obvious follow-up question:

So that one is a lie?  --  Yes.

It is a lie from the statement that you signed after you have read through it?  --  Yes.

It is a version that you narrated to (Lt. Col Nkosi) who reduced this statement to writing?  --  I have never produced such a statement.  I do not even know where is Hanwell.

So where would Colonel Nkosi get this information if it was not coming from your mouth?  --  Colonel Nkosi is the one that was investigating the case. I was not investigating.

And so on. According to the defence, “80 percent” of Pakisi’s court testimony diverged to some degree from the versions laid out in his written statements.

Towards the end of his stint on the witness stand, Pakisi offered a revised version of the yet another crucial element in his narrative. In statement 2, he said he saw Schutte throwing Moshoeu off the bakkie three times in all. In court, he said he’d actually witnessed only one throw, and just assumed there were others because the bakkie kept stopping and starting as it laboured across the sunflower field.

The defence asks why Pakisi is yet again altering his story. Pakisi replies that he is simply adding new details as they come to him. The exchange continues thusly:

Do you mean that as you sit there some things come to you for the very first time still?  --That is correct because I have been disturbed, I have been disturbed on my health and my mind.

Did you tell the prosecutor about these problems before you started to testify here?  -- Advocate Molefe and his group knows about my problems.

The problem is that when you say even now things are only coming to you for the first time, my predicament is that when I close the cross-examination you can remember tonight something else is that not true? -- Yes that is correct because I have flashbacks I can remember every time what occurred.

One senses that the defence heaved a sigh of relief at this point, assuming that the prosecution’s only witness had just taken himself out of contention. All that remained was to play the defence’s trump card.

In court, Dooreward and Schutte offered the following version of the events of the fateful day. They said they spent the early part of the morning at their boss's workshop. Around nine, they got in the bakkie and drove off to collect peanut samples in a field just outside town. On their way back, they saw two kids stealing sunflower heads. They said they did not drive into the field because they couldn't (their employer had recently dug a trench to discourage vehicles from a nearby informal settlement using his sunflower field as a short cut to town.) They stopped in the road alongside the kids. Doorewaard rolled down his window and shouted, “What are you doing?” One boy ran and hid in the sunflowers. The second – Moshoeu – ran into a mielie field. But returned and climbed onto the load bed of the bakkie when the Boers said "klim."

According to the accused, this was a low-stress situation. On four previous occasions, juveniles had been caught stealing sunflower heads. They had then been handed over to police, who issued warnings and released them into the custody of their parents. The accused said they were planning to do the same with Moshoeu. They slung the evidence (a handful of sunflower heads, worth around R60) onto the back of the bakkie and set forth for the police station.

As they rounded the first bend, Schutte said he caught a glimpse of movement in a side rear-view mirror. He spun around, saw that the boy had vanished, and shouted, ”He’s jumped off,” or words to that effect. Doorewaard performed a U-turn and drove back. The boy was lying in the middle of the road, bleeding. Doorewaard and Schutte said they were reluctant to move him because his injuries seemed very serious, so they asked two passers-by to stand guard while they raced to the police station, 1.8km away, to organize an ambulance.

At this point, Doorewaard and Schutte were carrying three cellphones between them. Vodacom records showed that the accused made or received 28 calls between 7am, Pakisi's best estimate of the start of the throwing-off incident, and 10.08, when someone called from Coligny police station to say an ambulance was on its way. All these calls were handled by Vodacom's Coligny tower. 

If the accused had indeed abducted Pakisi at gunpoint just after 7am and taken him on an hours-long, 47.6 km ride to lonely places where he could be terrorized without anyone seeing, at least some of those calls would have been relayed by outlying Vodacom towers. But this did not happen. Vodacom records showed that Doorewaard and Schutte remained in or close to Coligny throughout the critical period, and Vodacom records were infallible (“99.9 percent accurate,” according to an expert witness.) Furthermore, Pakisi repeatedly swore he saw neither of the accused using a cellphone during the hours he spent with them. Someone was lying here, and it was hard to argue with Vodacom’s records.

The law as we know is an ass, but centuries of legal precedent establish the rules of engagement here. If the defence presents a version that could be “reasonably, possibly true,” the court should accept it. Conversely, the state is required to prove its case “beyond reasonable doubt,” especially if the charges emanate from a sole witness whose credibility is open to question.

Defence lawyers thought they’d done enough to win an acquittal. They were wrong.

Part 3 – the judgement

Mmabatho High Court, October 10, 2017.  A swarm of TV cameras tracks Judge Hendricks as he takes his seat on the bench and starts summing up the evidence, all 1,000 pages of it. Nearly an hour passes before he gets down to the serious business. This is a case, he says, where the charges rest heavily on the evidence of a single witness. The law therefore requires me to treat such evidence with caution. “A court may convict on the evidence of a single witness (only) if it is satisfactory in all material respects,” he says, “or if there is corroboration for such evidence.”

Hendricks goes on to list 12 inconsistencies in Pakisi’s evidence. Were the Boers armed with a rifle or just hand guns? Did it really matter that in court Pakisi said he’d never heard of Hanwell? Or that he’d amended the number of times he saw the deceased thrown? "You have to look at these things in context," says Judge Hendricks. Errors do not mean a witnesses’ testimony should be rejected in its entirety. They could result from cultural or linguistic confusion. They could be mistakes on the part of detectives.

Alert readers will note that Pakisi’s most spectacular flip-flops — changing the time of the murder from 9am to 7am, and elevating the number of attackers from two to three — are not mentioned here. Indeed, they never made it into Hendricks’ judgement in any form. This was the fruit of keeping investigating officers Nkosi and Sepongang off the witness stand; it allowed howling contradictions to be pushed into the deep background, which in turn enabled Hendricks to reach his most important conclusion: “The evidence of Mr. Pakisi is honest, truthful and reliable.”

Once that was decided, Pakisi’s version became the yardstick against which Hendricks measured all the accused’s protestations of innocence. They said Moshoeu was cooperative when they ordered him to accompany them to the police station, but that couldn’t be true, because Pakisi heard him screaming for his mother. They said Moshoeu climbed onto their bakkie voluntarily, but that couldn’t be true either, because Pakisi saw him hoisted aboard by the burly Phillip Schutte. They said the boy jumped, but that was obviously false, because Pakisi said the deceased was incapacitated by the first throw off the bakkie and spent the next several hours lying on the bakkie’s load bed in a pool of blood, unable to move because of his injuries. “He could not all of a sudden get up and jump from a moving van,” said Hendricks. “This is highly improbable.”

With that possibility discounted, Hendricks lays out his view of what really happened. The boy was fatally injured when the Boers threw him off their bakkie. When they realized Pakisi had witnessed their deed, it became necessary to shut him up. Towards this end, they terrorized and tormented him for hours before knocking him out with a blow to the back of his head. After that, they returned to the outskirts of Coligny, where they dumped the dying boy in the middle of the road and then raced to the police station crying, help, help, he jumped.

It is common cause that the last part of this story is true; when Doorewaard and Schutte pitched up at Coligny’s police station that morning, they said, please call an ambulance, someone has “jumped” off our bakkie. In court, they qualified this, stating they hadn’t actually seen Moshoeu leap; one moment the kid was there, the next he’d vanished. They assumed he’d jumped, but could not rule out the possibility that he’d fallen accidentally.

This became an issue in another section of Hendricks’ judgement, the one dealing with corroboration. As stated above, the law requires charges emanating from a single witness to be corroborated by independent evidence from neutral outsiders. Hendricks found a powerful instance of this in the strangest of places -- the testimony of Dr. Ruweida Moorad, the pathologist who performed an autopsy on the deceased. “Mr. Pakisi testified that the deceased was thrown from the van,” said Hendricks. “This evidence is supported by the evidence of Dr. Moorad.” 

This claim will be examined in detail next week, in a follow-up piece about the forensic evidence. Suffice it to say at this point that if Dr. Moorad had stayed on in court to listen to Pakisi's testimony, and then been recalled to the witness stand, she would have likely had to say something like this: My Lord, Mr. Pakisi has provided you with a demonstration of the manner in which the deceased was hurled off the bakkie. I am afraid his account cannot be reconciled with the injuries observed during my autopsy.

But anyway, Hendricks had already ruled that Pakisi was truthful; he said Moshoeu was thrown, and that was that. It follows that Pakisi’s account of the state of the accused’s vehicle had to be truthful too. “There was blood all over inside the van”, he said. If so, why did the accused leave it parked in the street for twenty minutes while they were reporting an accident to police in the charge office? Seems an odd way to cover up a murder.

Toward the end of his judgement, Hendricks notes that he was struck by the fact that by the fact that Pakisi got certain critical details right. He said Doorewaard was driving the bakkie, and Doorewaard agreed this was correct. He said Moshoeu was bleeding from the mouth and nose, and this was accepted by all parties. He provided police with descriptions that fit the two accused – one heavy-set and bearded, the other tall and thin. According to Hendricks, Pakisi could not possibly have known such things if he hadn’t been on the scene.

At first glance, this is a reasonable assumption, but it doesn’t necessarily carry the day. Pakisi had a friend in the police. Perhaps they discussed the case. If not, we know that Moshoeu lay bleeding in the road for around 40 minutes before the ambulance arrived, surrounded by a small knot of curious onlookers. Did someone share their observations with Pakisi? We just don’t know.

But here’s something we do know. At the outset, Pakisi gave the impression that the killers were strangers to him. A month later, he declared that he knew one of them, this being Doorewaard, accused number one. If Pakisi recognized one of the killers, why didn’t he just tell the investigating officers on day one? “I saw Pieter Dooreward committing murder?”

So many doubts, so many unanswered questions. In the end, Hendricks seemed to be swayed above all by the literary merits of Pakisi’s tale. “One thing that needs special mention,” he said, “is that Mr. Pakisi describes different scenes and everything that happened at those scenes. One can think of no cogent reason why Pakisi were to be so innovative if it did not in fact happen. This is almost rocket science.” On this basis the accused were both found guilty, and sentenced to long prison terms yesterday.

I have a literary theory too, for whatever it is worth, Pakisi is too young to remember much of apartheid, but he would have grown up listening to stories about farmworkers ill-treated by “the Boers.” Perhaps he had such an experience himself. I suspect that aspects of his story might be true, because it would otherwise have been difficult for him to maintain the requisite degree of narrative coherence. But it didn’t happen at the hands of Doorewaard and Schutte, and it didn’t begin in that sunflower field. If he’d really seen whites throwing a young boy to his death, the details would have been engraved in his brain. And he would have remembered their number forever.

Against this backdrop, I was not surprised when I opened Rapport the other day and read that Pakisi had recanted. According to Rapport, the sole witness was befriended by Paul Morule, a lay preacher who works for Doorewaard’s uncle, the businessman/farmer Pieter Karsten.  Morule secretly tape-recorded Pakisi confessing that his story was a fabrication. He then took Pakisi to see a lawyer, who also recorded a confession. Asked to comment, Pakisi conceded that the voice on the recordings was his own, but claimed he’d been offered R3 million to change his story. And shown a gun, as if to demonstrate what might happen to him if he didn’t.

This takes us right back to where we started, with whites saying one thing, blacks saying another, and a mob rumbling in the background. The mob has been there since day one, threatening violence at every turn. When the “killers” were not arrested immediately, the mob looted Coligny. And when the “killers” were granted bail, the mob burned houses down. Now the mob (in the form of the Mafikeng branch of EFF) is demanding the immediate arrest of the “racists” who attempted to subvert the course of justice by offering Pakisi a bribe. “The EFF stands combat-ready to deliver these criminals to where they are supposed to be,” said an EFF statement. “We don’t want to remind the police what happened the last time they delayed to arrest the accused but they must know that in the absence of justice, anarchy prevails.”

The problem with the mob is that it does not demand justice, just a preconceived outcome: Doorewaard and Schutte are guilty and must be savagely punished. From day one, it was clear that the mob was a factor in the decisions of policemen and magistrates, and that some were afraid to defy it. We cannot know to what extent this shaped the sunflower murder investigation and the ensuing trial. But we can say that the mob is hungry, and that nothing will appease it save white flesh.