Where fear still lingers

Children playing outside run and huddle around the trees at the sight of an unknown car. Women hide behind their washing; others rush inside and peep out through the curtains. Men look around alarmed. They greet visitors, but keep their eyes fixed on their children.

Since 19-year-old Johan Nel went on a rampage in Skierlik informal settlement near Swartruggens in North West in January, killing four people and wounding 11 others, residents say they live in constant fear.

“When we see a car stop or drive in here we tremble and seek shelter immediately,” says Cina Ngakane. “The day Nel came here was normal like this one. Then he parked his car and started shooting. Life here changed forever.”

This week Nel pleaded guilty in the Mmabatho High Court to four counts of murder and 11 of attempted murder.

Above all, the black residents say they want Nel to show remorse and explain his actions. Surprisingly, no one called for the death penalty.


Many local whites have difficulty talking about the issue; some turn away at the first mention of the murders. “I’m a farmer; so I’m sorry, I can’t speak about that,” says a white man approached by the Mail & Guardian.

The following were a few of the responses in this divided community:

  • “This shows there are problems here and no one confronts them. Nel is the first and only one who has challenged them and forced us to admit and discuss them.” Paki Marumolwa, Anglican priest.
  • “I was shocked and terrified as I watched him shoot and kill children and women. In court he showed no remorse. If this is racially motivated, it could happen again.” — Timothy Makgati, a witness in the case.
  • “He shot straight at me but I ducked and hid. I want him locked up forever. I don’t believe the reasons he gave in court. How can he be afraid of black people when they’ve worked for him all his life?” — Violet Doyi, a witness.
  • “We’re scared of them [white Afrikaners] now; we’re even scared to work for them. They’re also scared of us and don’t want us working for them any more – they say ‘Ek soek nie die mense van Skierlik nie [I don’t want Skierlik people].’ We were mad at first, we wanted to fight when we saw the dead bodies lying all over. But now we want to know why, what have we done wrong, why are we being killed?” — David Williams, who lost his job after the shooting.
  • “Nel should have come out with his grievances and we could deal with them, rather than killing babies. I don’t think he should be killed, but the courts should judge him and give him a harsh sentence. Two life sentences would be right.” — Chief Maimane, farmworker.
  • “It was so wrong what he did, we are all equal before God. He should be punished for what he did, he deserves to be sentenced like any other person who’s committed a crime.” — Bernice-Lee Hugo, business owner.
  • “He must be jailed; he can’t live with other people. Before this we were all living with one another well. The whites would come here freely selling their chickens. Now we live in fear. You never know what the whites are thinking.” — Rosie Madikwane, who lost two family members in the shootings.

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