Bheki Mashile's Letter from Umjindi

Farm murder. Burying New Year cheer

Just when I thought our Mzansi was going into the New Year with a rosier outlook – after the ANC elected a president who seems to know what the term “moral fibre” means – our optimism is slapped down by some idiotic incident that drains one’s patriotism and invites despondence. I am talking about the killing of a mourner during a funeral on a farm in Cramond near Pietermaritzburg.

This tragic incident might have been avoided if only the police had heeded the community’s reported request for their presence at the funeral.

News reports and broadcasts said the farmer had objected to the burial being conducted on his farm. The community, anticipating and fearing the farmer’s reaction, had asked the police to be present but the police did not oblige. Now a man is dead and another has ruined his life with almost certain prosecution for murder.

Why oh why did the police ignore the community’s request? Are they oblivious to the tense and volatile situation that surrounds our farm issues? If so, then Police minister Fikile Mbalula needs to put the same kind of energy into educating these cops about community policing as he exerted in his previous position as Sports minister when, a few years back, he was hellbent on trying to bring Beyoncé to South Africa for the South African Sports Awards – at enormous cost to the taxpayer.

Fikile Mbalula

Thankfully Mbalula  is  Minister of Sport and Recreation no longer, otherwise we could have had Beyoncé shaking her bootylicious at the ANC. Yes, the man seemed obsessed with the American singer. May he please redirect that preoccupation into training his police service in community relations. 

But let not the Mbalula-Beyoncé humour dilute the serious message. I happen to have personal experience of something similar: early last year a group of women walked on to my farm and told me they were there on the advice of the police. Naturally, I am baffled. Police? Why?

They explained that their relatives are buried on my farm and they would like to tend their graves. They said they had first gone to the police because they feared the farmer would deny them access or worse. Unfounded fears? Ask the police at Cramond.

Well, at first I was taken aback by the women’s fears. “Why would you be afraid of me, I am one of you, black?” They said they hadn’t known who lived here, only that they would be facing a farmer.

“The police then explained who you were and stressed that they doubted we would face a problem – since you wrote stories about things like this in support of the negatively affected community.”

OK, Barberton is a small town and I am certainly no stranger to the police. And yes, in my case they were spot on. However, they were also wrong to reassure the women that they would find an accommodating Bheki beyond the farm gate.

What if Bheki had insisted to the then Mpumalanga Department of Land Affairs, that there was no land claim on this farm? And what if he did not want to have a bunch of people telling him about some grave of their grandfather, mother etc on the farm? Which is precisely what happened with these women and their graves.

And, while this Bheki might not pull out a gun – as the Cramond farmer is alleged to have done – he could have easily denied the women access and insisted they get proof of the validity of their claims to the graves. A process this writer knows well from covering land-claim cases. This would surely have been a frustrating development for the women, not to mention the emotional pain of being denied access to a loved-one’s grave.

The moral of the story is that the police should have accompanied these women to my farm – even if only to pave the way for a cooperative interaction between myself and the women  – but more, to stress that they have the legal right to access the graves.

The women also said the police had told them that if I refused their request, there was nothing more they could do and they would have to apply for a court order. Legal advice is not what these women had sought from the police; they had asked for police protection from possible hostility and/or harm – one of the police’s main functions: to serve and protect.

The Cramond tragedy has highlighted one of the big problems encountered at our police stations: a laissez-faire attitude to many a request or complaint. For example: “Argh man he is your husband, can’t you talk to him instead of putting him in jail?”.

Yes, without a doubt the farmer needs to face the full might of the law. After all, if the media reports are anything to go by, he was carrying three weapons and pumped three bullets into the deceased. However, he is not the only one whose case should be examined in court. Heads need to roll at the Cramond Police Station. Someone there needs to explain why they failed to heed the community’s request for their presence.

And Cramond should send a thunderous message to Mbalula about community policing. I suggest the minister move his bootylicious and address this weak spot. He definitely has a better chance of succeeding with that than having dinner with Beyoncé.

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