What really happened in Machadodorp?

Gabriel Crouse writes on his search for the truth about the events leading up to the 'racism' video that went viral

"When I saw that video I just wanted to..." Unice-Ann Badenhorst clutched her throat and gurgled a small shriek. The video she was referring to depicts two private guards, Bruce Botha and Wayne Stuart, dragging Godfrey Masuka to a bakkie, footage that spawned several infernos.

Badenhorst is a proprietor of Millys, a multi-strand operation near Machadodorp that employs 230 people, making her the preeminent businessperson in the area.

It was late at night and she had just had an emergency security-PR meeting in response to the video, five days after the fact – the only reason anyone was still around to book me into the Millys hotel. She was resolutely confident about what had happened; Godfrey had “just said something” and then the guards, “young white boys trying to act tough”, swooped in to drag him to the police on the basis of verbal assault. Really, they did this because they are racists.

Fantastic, I thought. Finally I had met a local with a confident notion of exactly what had happened. Well, almost a local. Millys sits on a pretty lake a couple of kilometers away from Machadodorp.

Badenhorst explained that she and her team had come to another important conclusion. Whatever Godfrey had done, the way the security guards should have responded was “with kindness and calmness and care and softness and love", and “not with force”. That gave me something to sleep on.

Before embracing the luxury of Millys trout emporium, I spent the day fumbling around Mpumulanga’s dusty Machadodorp trying to establish which of two stories is true.

The first story was written by Arisa Janse van Rensburg for the Citizen (also syndicated in the local paper) and goes like this: An elderly white man, Johan, was walking about town when he passed a restaurant outside of which people were having a good time. They exchanged “jokes” with him, and then suddenly started “fighting”, though on Van Rensburg’s telling, this was merely verbal fighting, because “things turned sour” only afterwards. What made things sour was Johan’s boss, Redhwan Hivelt. He called private security to put a stop to the merely verbal exchange.

Badenhorst knew this story to be fact and she planned to act on it. But it turned out she had not heard of the alternative and refused even to consider it. This other story emerged on TimesLive, reported by Ernest Mabuza.

On this account, things were already “sour” before the private security arrived. Godfrey, with two others, had “severely assaulted” Johan, knocking him flat and then kicking his head and ribs as he lay on the ground. An eyewitness I spoke to (who prefers to remain anonymous for fear of death) said that Johan is an extremely thin old man who was outnumbered and outmuscled. He tried to resist the attack with pepper-spray and scrambled from the ground and made off round the corner to his boss’s shop.

Security guards Botha and Stuart, of a security company also in Hivelt’s employ, returned with Johan, apparently to point out the assailants, and Johan was assaulted again. Hivelt tells me he also called the police. In light of this, the guards struck back and dragged a drunken, violent Godfrey onto the bakkie to take him to the police around the corner. Everything in Machadodorp is around the corner, so why the police arrived only halfway through the guards’ attempt at citizen arrest is unclear.

Which of these stories is true, I couldn’t say for certain. Machadodorpers were not much help. The only business that looked open was the liquor store. I arrived there on Friday morning and the pavement outside was lined with hard men drinking, black and white, together. They had a few fine points to make about the usefulness of journalists. So I went round the corner to Hivelt’s shop, looted and burnt down in the aftermath.

Over the road, a very large spazarette was closed, with another dozen people sitting outside who gave me a warmer reception. None of them had seen the incident and were not prepared to rule decisively one way or another. It was common cause though, as reported both by Mabuza and Van Rensburg, that there was long-standing beef between Johan’s boss and the restaurateur Godfrey patronized.

The boss, Hivelt, sold Mpumelelo Ndlovu, the restaurateur, a house for which she did not pay and so it got repossessed. Whether the fight was verbal or a severe assault before the guards came, all agreed this historic tension between local low-level business leaders and their poor allies was its cause.

No one I spoke to that day or the next complained about racism. Outside the spazarette were a mixture of Punjabi South Africans and Ethiopian immigrants, joined by local black South Africans hoping to buy something, although the shop was closed. The common language for formal communication between all was English, and for joking, Afrikaans. I can’t say I’ve ever heard people from Ethiopia and India and black South Africans gil together in Afrikaans before, although it was no surprise that they were sharing cups of fizzy drinks on that dizzyingly hot day. They offered me some, and also some to the police who had joined the fray.

There was general frustration. I was told that businesses had been closed, except for one or two hours, all week. Despite warm ties with the community, established through the grace of no-interest credit and transport support, there was fear of looting in this tense atmosphere, especially with “toyi-toyi people who’ve come from far” loitering about. Why not open the shop now under police supervision, since they’re right here? After I asked that question, conversations broke down into Gujarati and Ahmaraik and someone asked: “Hey mister, where do you come from?” as if I might answer, “Another planet”.

The absurdity of my beyond-the-call-of-duty recommendation bubbled up. I remembered moments earlier watching the police drive past the large group of men on the pavement, openly drinking liquor from bottles. Enforcing existing laws was not an exertion the police were prepared to make either.

Until I arrived at Millys, the only people who were certain that racism is rife in Machadodorp, and that it caused the incident, were EFF supporters camped out at the police station. Those I spoke to came variously from Witbank and Nelspruit and they were lobbying police to release “our fellow fighters” who had been arrested for theft, damage to public property and arson during protests five days after the incident.

The protest started in Belfast, 25 kilometers away, where the security guards were released on bail, their assault case pending. So police vehicles were damaged, a fence was ripped apart, and the magistrate court was stormed. After the bail applicants escaped, the mob protest moved down the highway.

A truck was stolen and parked across four lanes at the entrance to Machadadorp and burnt, backing traffic up for kilometers in both directions (and all the way to Millys) for hours. This was the fourth truck burnt in the week. Among the other attacks, the Mpumalanga Traffic Control training centre was burned down, the major operating building near Machadorp’s “location” or “township”.

This was all justified, I was told, “because the police are defending racism”. Those are the words of EFF Mpumalanga chairperson Collen Sedibe, who, unlike many of those camped out at the police station, did not smell of hard liquor.

Sedibe said they were prepared to camp out all night until their “fellow fighters” were released, so when I arrived at an empty police station the next morning I assumed that is exactly what had happened. I was wrong; the “fighters” were still detained.

When I asked what had happened to the EFF support, police laughed: “They got tired and went home. Now it’s quiet here while they sleep off their babalaas”. Back in town, I heard the same story more bitterly. “Now it’s all burnt down, the power’s been cut in the whole town and they just go back to their roots in Nelspruit.”

The road to the “location” had been cleared, so I could finally go looking for Godfrey. I realized part of the Traffic Control Centre was still on fire, that the main wood roof-beam was burning, and that it would bring down the last part of the structure still intact if the fire was not extinguished. There was a police van on one side and a Nyala on the other, and while both staff were friendly, neither were prepared to do anything except send me on a run-around. These police explained that they came from Nelspruit, too.

Eventually I got a tip from another small business in the “location” – closed all week – that Godfrey went to hospital in Wateronderboven, a town nearby. At the hospital, I discovered that Godfrey had merely been treated as an out-patient, while Johan’s injuries –from the verbal abuse he had supposedly been subjected to - were so bad that he had been kept in hospital overnight for monitoring and treatment. It is unclear whether his ribs were broken or whether he was concussed, though little can be done about either except pain management.

I also learned that Godfrey, on the other hand, resisted attempts to send him to hospital on the day of the video, possibly for fear that his blood-alcohol level would be tested.

I went to the Wateronderboven police station to try clarify the matter, but hit a brick wall. Cheers echoed from over the road, so I walked into the pub to see the second half of the Springbok game against the All Blacks. There was a white proprietor doing accounts, two black youth playing pool, and kitchen staff bustling back and forth from bar to kitchen.

No one seemed to care about the game, though every now and then they all glanced at the TV and shouted loudly when we scored. When New Zealand’s comeback seemed imminent in the last twenty minutes, everyone was glued to the screen, biting their nails and chain smoking.

The pool players abandoned their game and were joined by another three friends launching fists in the air whenever a Springbok made a good tackle. When we held the line and won in the 83th minute, hugs and high-fives and cheers went all round.

It was a strange scene to stumble into on my search for racism in the heart of Mpumalanga, but then I realized I was looking in all the wrong places. Racism in such a case is not to be found in reality, but in armchair counterfactuals, like this: If Godfrey had been white would he have been treated so roughly? That is where racism is sure to be found, for no white person would be so manhandled.

And yet. I’ve seen far worse white-on-white violence between drunks and bouncers around the country than anything in that video. But in the particular case of the guards Botha and Stuart … I do not know, perhaps they treat white people only with softness and calmness and kindness and love, in which case the charge of racism would have some bite.

There are other counterfactual questions however, such as; if Godfrey had been white would the incident have been videoed and gone viral around the country? Surely not. But a harder question emerges depending on which story you believe.

If Johan was actually beaten on the ground by Godfrey and two others before the smartphone cameras started rolling, then the allegation of racism might go the other way.

Here’s another counterfactual. If the police stopped people from drinking on the streets would any of this have happened? If SA’s economy was not smothered in ash would Ndlovu have been unable to pay for her house, creating harmony rather than an animus between her allies and Hivelt’s? And if the town’s police were efficient and trustworthy, would Hivelt have hired a private security company?

I leave these to the reader's consideration, as I’m only prepared to commit to this: If Botha and Stuart’s treatment of a counterfactual white person matters, then these counterfactuals matter, too.

Badenhorst can preach tolerance and softness both to Godfrey and to the EFF-aligned protesters. She is extremely wealthy, unlike Hivelt, who has lost his life’s savings, his business and his home through arson and looting, and is hiding his family for fear of their lives. Badenhorst’s business did not need to be shut down for a week or even a day by the Machadodorp power-out.

Meanwhile, Johan lost his job and his ability to breathe easy, and it seems unlikely that Badenhorst or anyone else will take on his case. While Badenhorst told me that “we should leave enforcement in the hands of the police” rather than rely on privately hired tough guys, she employs her own private security company.

If she presses her panic button it is unclear exactly how that company should avoid force and respond rather with kindness and softness and love, a question upon which she can muse while watching her own trout catch flies. Most people in potholed Machadodorp do not have the luxury.

As a reporter, reality comes first, and I cannot pretend to have succeeded in establishing exactly what happened. Counterfactuals are not as concrete as reality, but they are also worth taking seriously because the future is nothing but a set of counterfactuals, one of which will be the path we take.

So, as we think about what to do next time, consider this. Imagine a South Africa in which people with smartphones apply the same presence of mind one would expect from a pre-adolescent sitting a visual literacy exam, asking questions like a) can you imagine three different scenarios that preceded the video one that includes anti-black racism, one that includes anti-white racism and one that includes no racism at all; b) what kind of evidence would you need to rule which of these scenarios actually happened; c) choose and justify which response to the video is preferable between i) shrieking about racism, ii) burning down public and private property worth tens of millions of rands and iii) launching an investigation and offering support to all victims directly and indirectly affected, regardless of race.

This might not be as catchy as John Lennon’s song, but that is exactly what the common folk of Machadodorp made me do; imagine.

Gabriel Crouse is an Associate at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.