/ 4 August 2006

Apartheid killer finds religion but not remorse

South Africa’s most prolific mass murderer takes another sip of coffee, eases back in his chair and pauses when asked if it is true he shot more than 100 black people. ”I can’t argue with that,” says Louis van Schoor. ”I never kept count.”

Seated at a restaurant terrace in East London, a seaside town in the Eastern Cape, the former security guard is a picture of relaxed confidence, soaking up sunshine while reminiscing about his days as an apartheid folk hero.

Hired to protect white-owned businesses in the 1980s, he is thought to have shot 101 people, killing 39, in a three-year spree. Some were burglars; others were passers-by dragged in from the street. All were black or coloured, the term for those of mixed race.

Convicted of murder but released from jail after 12 years, Van Schoor is unrepentant. ”I was doing my job — I was paid to protect property. I never apologised for what I did.”

He is not the only one. The whites in East London who turned a blind eye to his killing spree have not apologised and whites in general, according to black clerics and politicians, have not owned up to apartheid-era atrocities.

That reluctance to atone has been laid bare in a book published last week, The Colour of Murder, by Heidi Holland, which investigates the bloodsoaked trail not only of Van Schoor but also his daughter, Sabrina, who hired a hitman to murder her mother.

The macabre tale is likely to reignite debate about those whites who shun the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and mock rainbow nation rhetoric. ”The story is of a family but it is also the story of a divided country and of the people of that country trying to find new ways to live with each other,” says Holland.

Since his release two years ago, after benefiting from a sentence reduction for all convicts issued by Nelson Mandela when he was president, Van Schoor (55) has slimmed down, shaved off his beard and kept a low profile, working as a cattle farm foreman outside East London. During his 1992 trial white residents displayed ”I Love Louis” stickers decorated with three bullet holes through a bleeding heart. Sympathy endures, says Van Schoor. ”The reaction is 90% positive. Strangers say, ‘Hey, it’s good to see you.”’

Magistrates and the police, grateful for the terror instilled in black people, covered his tracks until local journalists and human rights campaigners exposed the carnage as apartheid crumbled. Van Schoor was convicted of seven murders and two attempted murders.

Upon his release in 2004, Van Schoor said he had found God and, when prompted, expressed sorrow to his victims’ relatives. ”I apologise if any of my actions caused them hurt.”

In an interview this week, he tried to clarify his position. ”I never apologised for what I did. I apologised for any hurt or pain that I caused through my actions during the course of my work.”

Thanks to his changed appearance and low profile he has faced no backlash. Few black people recognise him, including the bookseller who took his order for The Colour of Murder. When Van Schoor gave his name the penny dropped. ”She nearly fell off her chair,” he says, smiling.

Married four times and now engaged to a local woman, Van Schoor, speaking softly and warily, says he is ”happy and content”. But he does not seem to approve of the new South Africa. ”Everything has changed — people’s attitudes, the service in shops, it’s not the same.”

On the contrary, lament black leaders, one crucial thing has stayed the same: the refusal of many whites to admit past sins. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel peace laureate, recently said the privileged minority that once feared retribution had not shown enough gratitude for peaceful inclusion in a multi-racial democracy. Nkosinathi Biko, the son of the murdered anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, noted the dearth of white voices during last month’s commemorations of the June 1976 Soweto uprising, when police slaughtered black schoolchildren. A liberal white commentator, Max du Preez, called the silence embarrassing.

Nowhere is it more deafening than East London. Van Schoor’s rampage was made possible by a white establishment that made no outcry as his victims piled up, many of them impoverished children such as Liefie Peters (13) gunned down while hiding in the toilet of a Wimpy restaurant after breaking in to steal cash.

This week, eating a burger metres from where Van Schoor cornered his prey, Jacques Durandt, a 33-year-old white former member of the security forces, defended the killer. ”I won’t say he’s a murderer. For him it was a job.”

Wannitta Kindness, a 36-year-old white taxi driver parked outside the restaurant, says the security guard might have fired even if the intruder was white. ”But you don’t find white people breaking into places.”

Others echoed the refrain: denied jobs reserved for black people, targeted by criminals, harassed in the street, victims in South Africa these days have pale skin and they see no reason to apologise. ”The blacks don’t want equality,” says Kindness. ”They want to be on top.”

East London does boast at least one white advocate of racial harmony: Van Schoor’s daughter, Sabrina (25). While her father was in jail she shocked the white community by dating black men and giving birth to a mixed-race child.

In 2002, in a grisly irony, she hired a black man to slit her mother’s throat, claiming she was a racist bully.

Convicted of murder and sent to the same prison as her father, Sabrina van Schoor is seen as a martyr by some black people. She seems popular among fellow inmates at Fort Glamorgan jail. ”That girl, she’s not like the whites outside of here. She’s OK,” says one inmate.

Speaking through iron bars, Sabrina van Schoor, powerfully built like her father, says she is nervous about her family history coming under public scrutiny again because of the book. ”I’m afraid it might open old wounds.”

Blame game goes on in a society dogged by murder and violence

Each time someone is murdered in South Africa — which happens about 50 times more often than it does in Europe — 2010 flashes through the minds of football administrators and politicians. That year, when the country stages the World Cup, has become as much of a test of South Africa’s ability to rule itself as the 1994 election which introduced majority rule.

While most World Cup hosts get nervous at some stage of preparations, about the capacity of stadiums or transport systems, in South Africa the worry is murder. Just as violence threatened to derail the peace train heading for majority rule 12 years ago, so there are fears that it is about to humiliate the country.

One of the most puzzling aspects is that the violence, long associated with tensions arising from racial divisions, has failed to disappear with apartheid. The statistics are unreliable; the police and government do not like releasing them because of their impact on tourism. But it is believed that the only country to rival South Africa in the crime stakes over recent years has been Colombia. The issue is intrinsic to life in South Africa.

Blame tends to be coloured by political perspective. The government blames illegal immigrants and organised crime. Farmers who see neighbours killed on lonely homesteads blame the ANC, which they claim is after their land. The rich blame the poor and, of course, whites blame black people. Crime replaces the weather in small talk — until an incident of particular savagery, such as the recent case of a white farmer who threw a black farmworker into a lions’ cage, to be eaten alive.

The South African author André Brink fell victim to crime when gunmen raided a country restaurant where he was having dinner with his family, assaulted them and locked them in a storeroom. He said he received a flood of letters in response to an article he wrote about the experience.

”Each one of them has encountered, either personally or through family and close friends, examples of the violence which has come not only to cloud all the laudable achievements of our young democracy but to threaten the very likelihood of success for this democracy,” Brink said. – Guardian Unlimited Â