Two white South African farmers who forced a Black man into a coffin and threatened to set him alight are facing Christmas in custody amid fears their release would spark a race riot.
Willem Oosthuizen and Theo Jackson were appearing in court in Middelburg, South Africa over a viral video that showed two Afrikaans men apparently torturing a young African man.
More than 400 protestors, held back by a line of police, called for ‘revenge’ outside the magistrates’ court as prosecutors warned that the ‘very very serious matter’ could threaten public order.
The distressing film, which went viral on social media last week, apparently shows Victor Rethabile Mlotshwa crammed in a wooden casket, squealing and flailing in panic as two white men apparently threaten to put a snake in with him, and douse him in petrol before forcing a lid down on their victim’s head.
Campaigners described Mr Mlotshwa’s ordeal as ‘torture’ in comments outside court as they paraded him in front of the crowd. His mother, who was at his side to support him, then collapsed.
The lawyer for the two accused told the packed courthouse in Middelburg that his clients were ‘abandoning’ their bid for bail after the state said they would oppose it.
During the short hearing, the two accused looked unshaven and anxious as the noisy protest baying for revenge outside the court house could be clearly heard.
Victor Rethabile Mlotshwa sat in the front row of the public gallery, supported by his mother, looking intently at the backs of the two accused throughout.
Prosecutor Rean Lourens told the court, ‘This is a very very serious matter and we oppose bail in the strongest terms. The accused know the identity of their accuser and there is a real threat that he and other witnesses could be intimidated or threatened.
‘This case has also provoked a public outcry and there is a lot of tension and threats surrounding it, so there is also a public order consideration in arguing about bail.’
An interpreter translated all proceedings into Zulu for the benefit of the scores of public who had queued since dawn for space in the court.
After proceedings had ended, and the two accused had been led to the cells facing Christmas in custody and trial in the new year, Victor Rethabile Mlotshwa was ushered out of court by supporters and swept onto the stage of a flat bed lorry which was parked outside for an impromptu political rally.
He looked bewildered and overwhelmed as hundreds chanted and danced in support of him. His mother, collapsed in a heap on the stage, apparently finding the crowds, and noise of the occasion too much.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) whose leader has called for ‘a crusade against white supremacy’, were among those who gathered outside Middelburg Magistrates Court where the men appeared for the first time, in custody.
The 20-second footage has laid bare deep racial divisions and inequalities that continue to dog South Africa 22 years after the end of white minority rule.
The EFF described the incident as ‘a humiliation of Black people as a whole’ and its secretary-general Godrich Gardee called for the white men ‘to be found and taught a lesson’.
According to Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, who is supporting him, Mr Mlotshwa was walking home with a friend across land belonging to the men’s chicken farm in Blinkpan, a farming and mining town 100 miles east of Johannesburg, when they were seized and set upon by two white men.
‘The other guy managed to escape, but they held on to Victor and then began to torture him,’ Mr Ndlozi from the EFF said. ‘The farm is next to an informal settlement and people often take a short cut across the land.’
The incident took place at JM De Beer Boerdery, a chicken farm which the EFF has called to be invaded and occupied.
The two accused face charges relating to kidnapping and assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.
Thobile Rethabile, 22, Victor’s brother described how he had seen the video on Facebook last week and immediately recognised his brother.
‘It was just so upsetting and shocking, I heard the noise of this guy crying and then saw it was my brother,’ he said. ‘I ran to find Victor and showed him the film and he confirmed it was him.
‘He was also shocked to see it. He had not said a thing about the attack to anyone, he was so frightened those guys would come after him if he made a complaint. He didn’t think he had any proof that it happened, so who would believe him?
‘I was so upset, it was so distressing to see my brother being treated like that, like worse than an animal. But Victor was just quiet, he was so traumatised.’
Jobless Thobile, who has two brothers and two sisters, said the entire family had been left sickened by the video. Their mother Nomvula was rushed to hospital after collapsing following the brief court appearance.
‘Now our mother is so ill from it all, she has been so upset by this.’
In the film clip, a white man is seen, wearing khaki shorts and shirt, dropping a large stick in order to cram a clearly petrified Mr Mlotshwa into the wooden casket, ordering him to ‘get in, I want to throw some petrol.’
The other man, videoing the assault, is heard speaking in Afrikaans, threatening to ‘put a snake’ in with the younger African man who struggles and squeals in terror as a lid is closed on him.
South Africa has witnessed a spate of racially charged incidents in recent months, but the coffin case has sent shockwaves across the country and re-opened old wounds – many have likened the film to the torture Africans endured at the height of apartheid.
In January this year, the South African Human Rights Commission received 160 racism-related complaints, the highest monthly figure in its 20-year history. The government is now in the process of introducing new laws to prosecute those who commit ‘racial bigotry’.
However, comments posted on social media by white supremacist about the incident are claiming an alleged threat to whites since the ruling African National Congress came to power. White supremacist groups claim it is they who are in need of protecting.
Last week, EFF leader Julius Malema, whose popularity among South Africans is growing, told a crowd, ‘We are not calling for the slaughtering of white people – at least for now.’
By: Jane Flanagan
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