/ 4 September 2008

Waterkloof Four: guilty even if innocent

Not since Paris Hilton’s arrest for driving under the influence and her subsequent 23-day imprisonment in a Los Angeles-area jail has there been such media attention focused on a case involving youthful offenders.

The four Waterkloof boys — known as the Waterkloof Four — were 15 when they committed the acts that led the Pretoria High Court to convict them of the murder of an unknown black man and of assaulting another man in a field in Pretoria in 2001. They admitted the assault but have consistently denied killing the other, unidentified man. Like Hilton, the Waterkloof boys are privileged and physically attractive. Like Paris, they faced their court appearances in style. Throughout the months of their trial they posed outside the Pretoria High Court decked out in the latest designer fashions. There was something flagrantly provocative and exhibitionistic about their attitude.

On the day Christoff Becker (22), Frikkie du Preez (23), Gert van Schalkwyk (22) and Reinach Tiedt (22) reported to start serving their 12-year sentences in Pretoria Central, reporters swarmed to get the best images. Public interest is phenomenal. The letters pages of Afrikaans papers have been dominated by passionately expressed opinions (mostly strong condemnation, occasionally sympathy) on the case. Beeld reported about the boys’ first day in jail — reminiscent of the attention paid to Hilton’s first day in jail. It was remarked on Larry King Live that the experience would be good for Hilton and boost her career. This is where the similarities end: for the Waterkloof Four, the future will never be carefree and bright again.

The analogy is not, however, as flippant as it may seem. Whereas the attention paid to the Hilton case triggered public debate about the superficiality of Hollywood’s celebrity culture, the Waterkloof case raises different and deeper questions. It touches the most sensitive nerve in the Afrikaner (and indeed the South African) psyche: racism in its most brutal form. Even if their appeal to the Constitutional Court succeeds, and it transpires that they are innocent of murder, they should have shown more appreciation of the seriousness of the charges. Instead of remorse, they displayed defiance and arrogance.

The boys were 15 when the alleged crimes were committed. Many believe that their alleged actions and attitudes reflect on their well-to-do parents as much as on them. Even a mature 15-year-old with a criminal capacity (meaning the ability to appreciate the difference between right and wrong and to act accordingly) is, to a large extent, the product of upbringing and education. The Pretoria suburb of Waterkloof is a symbol of Afrikaner affluence, tradition and gentility. It is therefore ironic that the group is referred to as the Waterkloof Four: if the boys are guilty, their behaviour is the antithesis of the refined culture residents of the suburb claim to promote. If they are not guilty, their actions and attitudes would still be a disgrace to Afrikanerdom.

The actions of the four will taint the reputation of Afrikaners everywhere (from Bloemfontein to London, from Durban to Dubai). For me this is one of the saddest aspects of the case. Many Afrikaners have not only accepted multiracial democracy but embraced the ideals underlying it; they actively contribute to a better, more equal society. The media attention focused on the actions of the Waterkloof Four makes the specific seem general. The proximity in time to the displays of racism at the University of the Free State makes isolated acts seem like common practice and makes racists of us all. It will probably take many decades to work through our collective guilt and the unrepentant attitude of the Waterkloofers sets us all back.

Dr Mia Swart is a senior lecturer at Wits Law School