Saturday, August 25, 2007

Where angels fear to tread

Where angels fear to tread

by Cindy-Lou Dale

Writer, Journalist, Photographer

In 2005 I interviewed the surviving spouse of a double farm murder in South Africa. Here is her tragic story.


My world changed three years ago, on my daughter’s 7th birthday. My brother and his family joined us for a celebratory barbeque on our farm in a remote rural area in the Gauteng Province. A distress call came from an elderly lady living on a neighbouring farm. She was extremely concerned because her farm workers had reported suspicious looking people on the farm. My husband and brother immediately got into the pickup truck and sped off to assist her.

Soon my husband spoke on the CB radio in his vehicle and very calmly said there were three men on the road ahead. Simultaneously my brother spoke, “Where is he now?!” He sounded distressed. Then the radio went dead. That was the last time they ever spoke. A moment later, a neighbouring farmer, Piet, who also went to the elderly lady’s farm, shouted into his handset, “I can’t stop! Jesus! They’re shooting at me!” I knew immediately that something was badly wrong. I alerted the police and left with two teenage sons to investigate.

We found the pickup truck in the middle of the road, at the entrance to the farm they were heading towards. My husband had broadsided to a stop when four men stepped out in front of the vehicle, forcing him to come to a swift stop and then they opened fire, at point blank range. My brother’s body was slumped, half in and half out of the passenger side door. My husband was slumped over the seat, still breathing. I sat in the door frame next to the driver’s seat and held his head in my hands as he breathed his final breath, gently rocking him back and forth. “What are we going to do now?” I asked my sons, who were staring at the scene of carnage around them in disbelief. I looked about in vain, hoping to find some assistance but instead became transfixed with the rivulets of blood trickling down the inside of the windscreen, pooling on the dashboard. My sons could not speak or react to what they saw – but I swear I witnessed my boys turn into old men in an instant.

I was vaguely aware of the paramedics stopping next to me. I heard Jaco, our church minister, speak. “Dear Jesus, dear Jesus… Anita, what happened here?” He took in the scene and instinctively embraced my sons, moving them away.

Under Jaco’s escort we returned to the farm. On route my mobile phone rang, it was Piet’s wife, she was frantic that her husband had not radioed in. “Jacky, my husband is… Jake and Dries have been shot. They are dead…” I heard my words and could not believe what I was saying. They were dead. But only half an hour ago they were preparing the barbeque for the afternoon’s festivities.

When we stopped outside the farm house, my sister-in-law ran out to the car. She was visibly distressed, even more so when she saw our church minister. “Poppy, something terrible has happened…” She stared at the blood on my clothes and hands. I saw the realization slowly dawn on her face and watched helplessly as she broke down. I thank God that Jaco was there to help her. Moments later my two younger children came out to the car. My seven year old birthday girl asked, “Mum, where is Daddy”.

Within a short time my home was filled with people. People giving their condolences; offering help; asking what they could do; some starting the funeral arrangements; others making tea; the men talking amongst themselves delegating management duties to those capable of running the farm in the interim. I needed space. I needed to leave. To get out. I wanted to be with my children, alone. Eventually, in the early hours of the morning, my house was empty. I climbed into bed with my four children and we exchanged ideas about what we should do. Soon they were asleep and I was alone with my thoughts. I was certain I would wake from this bad dream in a moment as I needed to milk the cows and Jake needed to tie them securely.

Instead, I made myself some coffee and sitting at the kitchen table looked out of the window; Jake’s shot-out vehicle was still parked outside for everyone to see. I picked up the keys, as well as several newspapers to cover the bloody seat and moved it into the shed, out of view. I started to prepare the milking parlour for the morning session and, lost in thought, instinctively called down the corridor for Jake, as I did each morning, telling him he could now start tethering the cows. Instead a neighbouring farmer appeared. He took over the milking duties for the next ten days and sent me home to be with my family. Through his act of kindness I realized I could not manage the farm alone, I would need to sell soon.

Slowly, one by one, my children emerged from the bedroom. The realization of the horrific events was clear on their young faces. My youngest son went out in the maize field; I think he went there to cry. My other children sat close by me, they were numb, their spirits broken. It was Sunday and my children asked to go to church. I had been cautioned against this earlier as the press, television crews and police had staked out the town centre. My sister later told me that the service was a total disaster. Jaco was unable to preach. He had lost two of his closest friends and coupled with his own personal grief, the anguished looks of his congregation tore at his humanity and he broke down, sobbing uncontrollably. The whole congregation was crying. The service was eventually delivered by a church elder, fighting hard to control the lump in his throat.

Later the congregation came to the farm. I had never seen so many cars or people at our home. I was lost, I could not bring myself to make tea or have a normal conversation. Everyone offered their help and many of the farmers literally took over and looked after the cattle, the labourers, the crops. I received more meals than we could ever think of eating. My home was filled with flowers and friends and love, all intensifying the pain even further.

I was grasping at the few remaining straws of control I still had left. I felt I was losing my grip and was desperately trying to remain calm. I had to stay in control. My children needed me.

Later that day Jaco and I drove to the coroner’s office in a neighbouring town. I needed to identify Jake and Dries’ bodies. The coroner asked for their identity documents and was about to stamp “deceased” across the photo page. I instinctively bellowed for him to stop. The anguish in Jaco's voice caused me to catch my breath, “Dear Father God, no… please Jesus, no!”

A few days later their funeral was held and because it was taking place in a town some 75 kilometres away, my children and I needed to leave in the early hours. As I drove through the farm gates my eldest son asked me to stop the car and look at the stars. Eric Clapton’s “Tears from heaven” was playing on the radio. My son pointed out two very bright stars, “Mum, that’s Dad and Uncle Dries watching over us. Everything will be okay Mum. Everything will be okay.”

My three sons returned to boarding school a week after the funeral. I was told it was best they return to some form of normality as soon as possible and that their friends would be of a great help. The school staff kept a watchful eye on them and I called them individually three times a day. Their friends avoided them at first; I presume they did not know what to say. But my boys banded together, supporting each other and drawing strength from their shared grief. The school Chaplin prayed with them each evening and in time, became their confidant.

Four of the attackers were swiftly apprehended, (the fifth remains at large) and a trial date was set. At each hearing I noticed an elderly black man; he always chose to sit directly behind us. I wondered why he was there but he waylaid my fears as he was courteous and appeared to be truly interested in the proceedings. During a court recess, he remarked that the last witness had been lying. “Madam,” he said, pointing an accusing finger at the now empty witness box, “This man, he is telling a lie. He tells lies, all lies.” On the final court day, when sentence was passed, my eldest son and I walked out of the courthouse and saw the same old man standing on the steps outside. As we walked past him, he called out to my eldest son, “Young master, you are still young. You have to put this all behind you. Walk forward. Don’t look back. Don’t let this scar your youth. It is these killers who make people think everyone is bad. Please young master, don’t judge us all just because of what these bad men did. Don’t hate and think we are all bad.” God works in mysterious ways - my son needed to hear that message.

Three months after the shooting I left the farm. I knew I would never be able to stay. I was frightened, our lives were destroyed. The folk that eventually bought the farm were a consortium of black farmers. They came to view it three weeks after the murders and within a short time, hard negotiations were on the table. I was looking for a buyer that would purchase the farm as a going concern, everything included. I did not want an auction or people walking around poking at stuff. Soon a price was agreed and I received a deposit. The following day one of the consortium members was shot and killed in a car hijacking incident. When his brother called to tell me what had happened, I thought I would faint. Everything was settled, we were packed up and ready to leave and then this happened. Fortunately the sale went ahead. In hind sight, I realize I did not get a good price. If I had been in a different emotional state I am certain I would have done better. But there is a certain stigma attached to buying a farm where the farmer had been murdered.

My children and I were supported by our community, our extended family and here I have to specially mention, by our farm labourers. They were devastated by what happened to the man they idolized. They went out of their way to help me and did what required doing, without direction. Muriel, my dairy manager, worked tirelessly without taking weekends off. Many nights, sensing I needed company, she would sit with me and talk till the small hours. “The boss, he would have wanted it this way, Madam,” she would say. With the strength we drew from one another and from the love of the people around us, my children and I overcame this most difficult period in our lives.

I moved away to a safer part of the country now; although I will never really feel that we are safe but God is guiding me and through Him, I truly feel protected.

My children grew up in the wink of an eye and have lost much, but they have also gained as I am certain they will be strong and responsible adults. I find that each passing day they heal a little more. They have gone on with their lives; they have accepted what happened and carry no bitterness.

It’s been hard, many tears have been shed but we are here now, at a new chapter in our lives. I still ask questions, I feel the loneliness, especially when I wake to “milk the cows”, which aren’t there.

Jake was a good man, a wonderful husband and father. He was my best friend, my soul-mate. And I lost my only brother too. Gone in an instant.

When I think of what my children and I have lost, I am more adamant than ever to succeed at making a good life for us all. I want to live my life in peace and to the full; every moment God has given me is precious. I am pulling the shards of glass from my heart and pray that one day I will be healed and that I will find the carefree person I once was.

· Some 46-million people inhabit South Africa, a country approximately twice the size of Texas. The population is 77.4% black, 11.7% white, 8.4% of mixed racial composition and 2.5% Indian. Making it a near photo negative of the USA, whose white inhabitants constitutes some 85% of the nation.

· In 1991 South Africa boasted 85,000 commercial farmers – young militants have murdered 1,658 since then in more than 20,000 armed attacks. Since 1997 farm strikes have increased by 82% and murders by 70%.

· The murders of South African farmers is leading to massive food-insecurity in the country as there are now merely 35,000 commercial farmers left who need to produce sufficient food for South Africa’s 46-million people.

· Interpol states that South African farmers have the most dangerous job in the world - the murder rate for this sector is 313 per 100,000 - the highest for any sector globally.

© Cindy-Lou Dale 2004


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