Monday, 28 November 2016

Revisiting the hanging trial of the Upington 14

"Save the Upington 14: Stop Racist Terror in South Africa. Freedom for All Political Prisoners!" Dutch anti-apartheid poster.

[An extract from Drinking With Ghosts]


On 13 November 1985, Paballelo outside the Kalahari town
of Upington was in an uproar. The usually quiet township,
with its wide dirt and stone streets, and fenced plots on which
sat cinderblock houses, many with lovingly maintained little
gardens, was witnessing its first major disturbances since
the 1976 Soweto Uprising, because three days earlier police
had fired on residents, wounding several and crippling
one. An open-air protest rally early on the 13th had been
teargassed by police and those present had scattered among
the houses, with local activist Justice ‘Bassie’ Bekebeke, who
sported a cropped Afro and a spade-shaped beard, ducking 
down the street on which stood the house of unpopular
municipal policeman Lucas ‘Jetta’ Sethwala, 24. 
Sethwala was at home, armed with his police shotgun;
he fired into the crowd to defend his mother and himself,
but accidentally wounded Dawie Visagie, a neighbour then
aged 11, who happened to be running past. Bekebeke and the
crowd following him chased Sethwala. Bekebeke overtook
him, grabbed the shotgun from his hands and hit the
policeman so hard with the butt that the wood split, killing
him instantly.The murder of Sethwala led to to a sensational
trial which saw the police round up 26 suspects, often
targeting them purely because they were known Paballelo
activists; the state charged them all with murder, under a
perverse apartheid application of the common-purpose rule
that was used to tar and feather innocents with involvement
in capital offence cases.
It is twenty years since Sethwala was murdered and my 
editor Brendan Seery, who remembers the landmark trial
clearly, has dispatched me to Paballelo to reconstruct what
happened on that fateful day – and in the subsequent
lives of those among the initial 26 accused known as the
‘Upington 14’, who wound up on death row. I start at the
home of former domestic cook Ouma Evelina de Bruin,
who sits in the lounge of her home in Paballelo, her grey
hair and large round glasses making her look owl-like and
commanding in her armchair – she turned 84 on Christmas
Day 2004. Condemned alongside her husband Gideon
Madlongolwane, she was the only woman among the
Upington 14 who, on that icy autumn day 20 years ago at
the bitter end of apartheid, were sentenced to hang for the
murder of Sethwala. For two years they sat on death row at
Pretoria Central Prison, listening in fear to the death songs
and cries of the condemned who stumbled in shackles to the
hungry gallows, waiting for their own turn to be led ‘like
animals to the abattoir’, as De Bruin puts it to me.
I track down Sethwala’s mother, Beatrice Sethwala, 64,
who recalls with a fresh shudder the crowd attacking her
home that day: ‘It was frightening. They ran past the house
with that terrible [cry of] “Hê! Hê! Hê!”’She tells me her
son had warned her that their home would be attacked
by activists who saw him as an impimpi, an informer and
a turncoat.
Bekebeke, now a high-ranking Independent Electoral
Commission officer, tells me over the phone from his office
in Kimberley that the Sethwala home had been stoned by
the crowd, not because Jetta Sethwala was a policeman –
and he claims he counted several police officers as friends
– but because he was one of those policemen who ‘went out
of their way’ to enforce apartheid laws with callousness.
I trace Dawie Visagie, the boy shot by the policeman 20
years ago. Now 31, he tells me, ‘There was a big hole in my
stomach and I just ran until I collapsed.’
Bekebeke picks up the tale: ‘A shot rang out and this
boy [Visagie] ran towards me.’ Sethwala, still armed with
his shotgun, made a break for it, running from his house
towards an open field. Bekebeke says he ‘followed – I was
the only one … I didn’t even have a stone in my hand, but
I caught him and took his gun and beat him over the head.’
Visagie says he was devastated to hear later in hospital
that Sethwala had been killed. He says that even now
he remains friends with the family. After their arrest,
Bekebeke quietly confessed to his male co-accused –
but not to Evelina De Bruin – and their lawyer that he
was the killer. In a remarkable display of resistance and
solidarity, all the Upington 14 stood together, prepared
to pay the ultimate price because they refused to give
gold-bespectacled Judge Jan Basson the satisfaction of
fingering Bekebeke alone.
‘Throughout my life, I’ll be indebted to my comrades for
standing by me,’ Bekebeke tells me.
The trial would also prove to be a test case for the much
abused common purpose rule. Advocate Anton Lubowski,
the charismatic, wild-haired lawyer for the accused and
the first white man publicly to join Swapo, and Cape Town
attorney Andrea ‘Andy’ Durbach – who while in exile in
Australia wrote the 1999 book Upington: A Story of Trials
and Reconciliation about the case – were brought in very
late in the trial to argue in mitigation of sentence, after a
spirited 18-month defence by larger-than-life Johannesburg
advocate André Landman at the end of which 25 of the
26 were convicted in 1988 of Sethwala’s murder. When
Landman told Judge Basson that the Swapo activist
Lubowski would be replacing him, ‘the judge turned in
his chair … he went ash-grey, he was so angry,’ De Bruin
recalled. Bekebeke’s close friend and co-defendant Gudlani
Bovu, now 44, described Basson’s attitude towards the
accused as ‘very prejudiced’.
My colleague and old Durban acquaintance Carmel
Rickard, renowned as the best legal journalist in the country,
knows her judges intimately and puts me in contact with
Judge Basson, now five years into retirement at his home in
Kimberley. Over the phone he politely, but with restrained
bitterness, declines to comment on the case, saying he is
not allowed to speak to the press because he still sits on the
bench from time to time. ‘That [trial] was so long ago, it’s
buried now.’
When Judge Basson first passed sentence on De Bruin, she
claims God stopped her ears to save her from the heartache.
‘Our families were there and I saw people crying. I asked
my husband what happened – but he didn’t want to say.’
De Bruin then tells me how the prison warders who
received her and her death sentence order at Pretoria Central
 realised she had no idea what her fate was, and tenderly
tried to break it to her: ‘They said to me, “You were before
a Judge Basson in Upington?” I said, “Yes, I remember that
judge, but I can’t remember when I saw him last.” They then
read out to me the death sentence and asked me if I wanted
some water. I told them I was not thirsty.’
De Bruin recalls as if it were yesterday the only other
woman on death row while she served her time, though
she cannot remember her name: ‘It was this meisiekind
[girl-child] who was going to hang in the morning. She was
from the Cape and had killed another girl. They moved her
to The Pot [a preparation cell] and her family came to see her.
They [the warders] gave her a big last meal, with a whole
chicken, but she told them, “What must I do with this?”
When they hauled her out, she called out to me, “Ouma de
Bruin! I have hope that the cup that is passed to me will
pass Ouma by. I have peace because I did it [committed
the murder].” These fat warders then took her up the steps
[to the gallows chamber] and she was gone. That was my
second year. And that morning I heard of a group of men
that had been hanged.’
Remarkably, at the time she also expressed no thirst for
the truth about who had actually killed Sethwala, spending
her time, after she was allowed a few privileges in her
second year on death row, crocheting a blue-and-white
woollen shawl and making friends with the warders: ‘The
warders were very good to me, but they had to earn their
bread and had to disguise any affection they had for you.’
Meanwhile, Lubowski and his team were busy
preparing an appeal against the death sentences imposed
on the Upington 14 and waging a high-profile international
campaign on their behalf. In 1991 De Bruin, her husband,
Bekebeke and the rest of the Upington 14 walked free, their
sentences having been reduced by the Appellate Division
to suspended terms on the lesser charge of public violence. 
The homecoming of the Upington 14 was the greatest
celebration Paballelo had ever seen. Bekebeke says that
years after his release, he met the investigating officer from
the case and introduced himself. ‘He had throat cancer
and couldn’t speak. I told him who I was and walked off,
leaving him to deal with it.’ Asked what message he would
like to give Judge Basson if he met him today, Bekebeke
says, ‘I’d remind him of what I said to him on the day of
the sentencing, that one day I’d be a free black man in South
Africa. I could see the hatred in that man’s eyes. His best
punishment was to see us free.’
De Bruin’s husband died in 1996, sent to an early grave,
she believes, by his inability to deal with the stress of
spending two years on death row, hearing almost weekly
the gallows doing its grim work as it cut a swathe through
scores of fellow prisoners. By a twist of fate, assisted by a
legal reversal, the only one who eventually did give his life
for the cause of the 14 was Lubowski, gunned down by a
CCB death squad outside his Windhoek home in 1989.
During our interview, De Bruin lovingly fingers a
laminated black-and-white photograph of Lubowski: ‘To
hear Lubowski’s name twists my guts,’ she says. ‘I liked
him the moment I saw him … It’s because of his truth that
they killed him.’