Anatomy of a murder

Not too many writers have tried with any degree of success to get to the bottom of farm killings in South Africa. Many of the casualties seem to have been the result of simple robbery, but seen through the murky prism of a police or mortician’s report, many of the reasons behind the killings are obscured.

In Jonny Steinberg’s compelling book, Midlands, he sets out to explain some of the reasons behind these killings, where, at least in KwaZulu-Natal, “the infliction of a painful death appears to be the primary motive”.

Interviewing dozens of “widows, orphans, and childless parents”, Steinberg stumbled into the shattered lives of the people who knew Peter Mitchell, a 28-year-old white farmer who had driven through an ambush and was shot “neatly behind the left ear at close range with a shotgun” while on the way to his irrigation fields. Uncharacteristically for a farm murder, the killing seemed to have been undertaken by a professional assassin who left no clues — no spent cartridges or fingerprints.

There are wildly differing opinions; there are different worlds in the Midlands through which Steinberg in his “white skin” treads warily, sometimes employing others to covertly ask questions where he cannot.

He has also changed all the names of people and places — it is, after all a story about an unsolved murder — but it doesn’t really matter.
Steinberg, ever the sharp-eyed investigator, uncovers more facts about the murder and its possible causes, and about life in the Midlands, than anyone else has managed to do.

On one hand, there are the clumsy policemen and bitter farmers. The father of the dead man thinks his son’s case has gone unsolved because of constitutional democracy. On the other hand, Steinberg was shocked to find in the black community an indifference to the killing at best, at worst jubilation. After all, the white farmers had long ago taken the best land, leaving the tenant farmers to eke out an existence on the borders of their spacious farms.

It’s not easy reading: “If Peter Mitchell had been killed 10 years earlier, somebody would have been hanged. The tenants of Langeni [the small settlement where Steinberg places the local community of tenant farmers] would have been dragged one by one into police vans and tortured. Their doors would have been kicked in, night after night. The ribs of their sons would have been broken. And when they could no longer take it, they would have given somebody up. Whether he was indeed the guilty one would have been decided by the politics of Langeni itself. A harsh and brutal Langeni would have sacrificed an unimportant family.”

The trail is still warm when Steinberg arrived three weeks after the killing — and he follows this meandering, roundabout trail like a dogged detective. There is a lot of ground to cover, a lot of doubling back and retracing of steps, but this is necessary in this secret history of South Africa.

He doesn’t hang back on the sidelines of this story. He had to win the trust of the farmers, tenants and policemen, and, like Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart, his search for the truth shapes the way the book has been put together.

The truths he find may not make pleasant reading at times, but then South Africa is often not a pleasant place. All South Africans, at least, will find this essential reading.

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