/ 18 October 1996

Terror visits tiny town – and remains


In the heart of the Karoo, three killings came out of the blue, reports our guest writer Mike Nicol

THIS is about malevolence. Or killers from the veld. It’s about random, gratuitous, inexplicable violence. More specifically about what happened at Nieuwoudtville on Tuesday evening, September 24 1996. It’s about what police Captain Paul van der Westhuizen describes as “a brutal and senseless attack”.

This story began a long time ago. It’s part of the past; it’s part of the present. The details may vary: Griqua bandits raid a homestead in 1830; a hit squad attacks KwaMakhuthu village in 1987, but its essence is always the same. And it’s this sameness of utter violence that causes a moment of terror whenever the story is told.

Five days after the Nieuwoudtville killings a friend who does community work in Karoo dorps called to say she was afraid of driving alone on her next trip. She was leaving the next day. Not all the attackers had been caught yet.

“You just don’t know who is on the road,” she said. “When a car comes up behind you, you just don’t know who is in it.”

Until then she’d not been paranoid about the Karoo. Suddenly she was unnerved at having to sleep in far-flung dorps.

“This murder really scares me,” she said.

In the latest version of our never-ending story, five men come off the veld, out of the dark and kill in a frenzy, using knives. When they’ve finished, they take a microwave oven, a television set, two hunting rifles, bits of jewellery, and go back into the night. But it’s as if these things don’t count in themselves, it’s as if they are taken merely to put a money value on the wasted lives, to make the point that it was the killing that mattered here.

Death and the landscape.

Which is how the telling of this new episode in the narrative of South African malevolence starts.

It is told first as a radio news bulletin on Wednesday, September 25: two women and a child have been “brutally murdered” at Nieuwoudtville in Bushmanland. From the initial hesitant sentences the story seemed to invent itself, gathering facts, rumours, possibilities with each telling.

First there is the place: Nieuwoudtville, population 2 300. It is on a road from nowhere (Vanryhnsdorp) to nowhere (Calvinia). It is “out there”, “remote”, “distant”, a tiny settlement at the end of a vast Bokkeveld plain that drops suddenly on to flats that stretch to the unseen coast. At night the lights of Nieuwoudtville do not dim the stars; instead the immensity of the universe makes Nieuwoudtville seem even farther away.

By day there is the Bokkeveld, the Karoo, the ancient heart of the country. And more particularly, Bushmanland: a name that raises the ghosts of a people massacred. In the dust and the heat of Bushmanland it is implied there are restless souls with unfinished business.

It is across this landscape that the killers drove on Tuesday, September 24 – Heritage Day. A mostly blue-sky day with rags of cloud. It was into this landscape that the killers went afterwards when a full moon was up and the rocks on the veld would have shone like silver. The whole veld would have been cast in an ashen light with the mountains rising dark through it.

The killers drank liquor as they went over this pale landscape in their stolen cars. Perhaps they talked. Perhaps they sang. Perhaps they were silent. Perhaps some of them slept.

The route they took from Nieuwoudtville was down the escarpment into the Olifants River valley with the Cedarberg rising sheer and grey, cold. Through Clanwilliam where they abandoned one of the cars, past Citrusdal, Malmesbury, then off the N7 to Atlantis. It takes about three hours to drive that route.

Three hours is a long time to sit in a car thinking or not thinking about the killing you have done. Knowing this, knowing the distances that were driven, adds horror on horror to the story: it means that slitting throats, stabbing with screwdrivers, penknives, kitchen knives, letting so much blood run that it’s everywhere on floors, walls, furniture didn’t mean anything to these five men driving through the night, drinking. It also means that remote isn’t remote.

Yet people in Nieuwoudtville thought they were remote. They didn’t always lock their doors at night. What for? There was no crime in Nieuwoudtville. This point was made repeatedly as the story reconstructed itself, as it transferred from cryptic radio bulletin to the urgency of front page news.

People were quoted as saying: “This was my safe haven;” “We thought this sort of thing only happened in the city;” “Nothing like this has ever happened before;” “They came out of nowhere.”

Yet there were people in Nieuwoudtville who had seen five men driving around in their BMW on the Tuesday afternoon. Nieuwoudtville is too small not to notice something like that, especially on a holiday. There were people even then who thought that the men were up to no good.

But what the five were to do at nine o’clock that night was beyond imagining. That sort of thing didn’t happen in places like Nieuwoudtville. These sorts, these natural born killers, these reservoir dogs, belonged to the city. In Nieuwoudtville on that Tuesday afternoon they were spectres of city horror, chimeras that would soon drift away.

But before they went they killed.

The first person they killed was two-year- old Emma Fairbank-Smith. She had just finished her supper, she’d just been put to sleep. They beat her to death in her bed. Her mother, Julia, fought the attackers, but a frenzy was in the men and there was no stopping their violence until Julia was dead and so was her host Hendrina Louw, and so, they believed, was a supper guest, Johan Viviers.

Then, police say, they ransacked the farmhouse and left in their BMW and Hendrina Louw’s Toyota.

Sometime later, towards midnight, Johan Viviers, an off-duty policeman from Keimos, regained consciousness. He had a penknife sticking in his back. He’d been stabbed repeatedly with a screwdriver. He gazed at the carnage, at the tied-up body of Hendrina Louw. He blacked out, came to, managed to burn away the cord tied round his feet, managed to get to his bakkie, managed to drive to the police station two kilometres away in Nieuwoudtville.

As the newspapers put it, he raised the alarm. A manhunt started. And the story began to form.

It was told that Julia Fairbank-Smith and her daughter had gone out to see the spring veld flowers. They knew “Gansie” Louw – she was pictured in the newspaper reports smiling, vivacious, short-cropped hair, the opposite of a dorp tannie. In September the veld on her farm Heldersig – a name that would collapse under bitter irony – was a mass of yellow flowers. Later Gansie Louw’s son, Herman Louw, would be photographed in these flowers, his face heavy with grief.

It was told that on the night of Tuesday, September 24, Gansie Louw’s friend, Johan Viviers, came over for supper. He’d been thinking of making it another night, but they had settled on Tuesday; after all, it was a holiday.

By Wednesday, September 25 he was in a ward of the Medi-city Hospital in Paarl. By Thursday there had been death threats from sickos, from gangsters, from those drawn to the savagery, and he was given police protection. By Thursday there was speculation that the “Flower Gang” – as the killers had become known – were after money for drugs. Already police were saying they had forensic evidence which “positively linked” certain suspects to the murders.

“When you examine the background of the known suspects, one could easily assume that the motive for the slaying was to get drug money,” said Superintendent Jaco Campher of the Springbok police who was leading the investigation.

There were all kinds of rumours now. Rumours of the drug lords extending their activities up the west coast. Rumours that Johan Viviers had been left alive as a message to all police of what to expect if they messed with drug runners.

In many ways a drug motive made the story easier to tell. There was a logic here that could be understood. It was no longer inexplicable, although the randomness and the violence was still scary. There was no getting away from that. It made people’s sentences trail away into silence when they talked about it.

“It’s worse than anything I’ve seen in 30 years on the force,” said Superintendent Andre Loots, “I can’t describe it.”

In a monotone, Herman Louw talked about his horror when he got to his mother’s house as if he were a Quentin Tarantino camera; the shock was in the description: “My mother was lying in her bedroom, her hands and feet were bound and her throat was slit. The bed and carpet were covered in blood. Mrs Fairbank-Smith’s semi-naked body was lying in a pool of blood in the bathroom and her daughter’s body was in one of the other bedrooms.”

There’s a photograph of him and his younger brother, Wilhelm, standing outside the farmhouse on the day afterwards. He’s looking straight at the camera, his hands bunched into the pockets of his anorak. His face seems swollen with incomprehension. Wilhelm stands apart from him. He looks down, away from the camera. His face is tight with anger, his hands knotted into fists.

“There is never any crime in Nieuwoudtville,” says Herman Louw, staring at the farmhouse where the blood has been washed from the walls and the carpets although stains still ghost on the fabric. His longing is so fervent he uses the present tense. Then the realisation of what has happened manifests itself again: “We all thought we were safe out here, away from the city. We’ve learnt now that nowhere is safe anymore.”

But it’s not a matter of “anymore”. It’s a matter of always: of what happened in the years before and what happens now. It’s a matter of those Herman Louw calls moordenaars. In this case the accused have names like Charles Adams alias Chico alias Charlie Boy alias Ruggie alias Aandiebrand; Johannes Bruintjes alias Holland alias Moonlight alias Klein Holland; and Douglas Andre Solomons alias China alias Dougie. They are names from a nightmare. Except this isn’t a nightmare. This happened and it has consequences.

Eighty-year-old Hessie Nieuwoudt understands this. She’s lived in Nieuwoudtville all her life. She was born there; she wants to die there, peacefully. In 1897 her father-in-law sold his farm to establish the dorp because a centre was needed for the surrounding sheep farmers.

`Sister”, as Hessie Nieuwoudt is affectionately known, was the dorp’s midwife. For instance, she helped deliver Gansie Louw. The murder strikes a deep sadness into her soul.

She stands in the dim voorkamer (front room) of her 1910 kliphuis (stone house), for her years still spritely, animated, with memories of Gansie pouring off her tongue.

“Dis `n verskriklike ding, a terrible thing,” she says repeatedly. “We are one family here. The people in this town are all woven together like the threads of a carpet. This will tear everything apart. It’s like a lightning strike from a blue sky.”

The last point forms the essence of the killers on the veld story: it captures the malevolence that cracks through today just as it cracked through the past. There are echoes of this in all the krantzes.

In the face of the random and the gratuitous, everybody is vulnerable, and always has been. Those killed at Nieuwoudtville as much as, say, the unknown man chased by British settlers in the Suurveld on June 10 1835. He was chased because he was there to chase. He hid in a hole at the side of a river. But the settlers burnt the grass until he emerged and then they shot him. It is best not to forget such incidents when the new ones are told.

It is best to remember that this sort of atrocity, as Hessie Nieuwoudt says, can “tear everything apart”.

* Four men – Laston Chavula, Charles Adams, Johannes Bruintjes and Douglas Andr Solomons – have been charged with murder and robbery in connection with the Nieuwoudtville attack. A fifth suspect, the heavily tattooed Dawid “Doggy Dog” Ruiters, was arrested at the weekend after hitchhiking in the Eastern Cape. At the time of going to press, he had been charged with murder in connection with the death on Friday last week of a Gauteng taxi driver.

— The Mail & Guardian’s guest writers’ series will run weekly, featuring top South African authors doing special news features