ET murder trial a baptism of fire for new Child Act

When people accused attorney Zola Majavu of being politically motivated in offering his services free to the 15-year-old boy arrested for the murder of Eugene Terre’Blanche, Thuso Motaung knew they had got it wrong.

Motaung was a popular Lesedi FM presenter when he was arrested for defrauding the SABC of R32-million in 2008. “All my assets had been frozen and Zola came to my rescue to represent me, never worrying whether I had money to pay him,” said Motaung, who was eventually acquitted of the charges.

“Zola is a deeply religious man and we often prayed together. He will be a godsend to the child.”

On Easter Sunday Majavu received calls from concerned members of civic organisations, asking him to represent the teenager and his co-accused, 27-year-old Chris Mahlangu. They had been arrested in connection with the brutal slaying of Terre’Blanche, the leader of the far-right Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB).

Fears for the safety of the accused grew as political tension ran high after Terre’Blanche’s mutilated body was found in the bedroom of his run-down farm outside Ventersdorp.

“There was absolutely no political motivation involved in my taking on this case,” said Majavu. “I am well known in football circles as the prosecutor of the Premier Soccer League and people do contact me for help. I worked at the Legal Aid Centre at Wits University for eight years and lawyers are encouraged to do pro bono work.”

When Majavu arrived in Ventersdorp two days later, he made his way past the uniformed AWB supporters outside the court to find that Mahlangu had already appointed a lawyer and three Legal Aid lawyers were on hand to help the minor, who, by law, cannot be named.

Majavu turned to leave but was called back by a social worker, who said the teenager wanted him to represent him. The slight, neatly dressed child and his family were waiting for him in a private room in the court building.

Although Majavu speaks four African languages, he found it difficult to communicate with him.

“He hadn’t eaten for some time and he didn’t open up to people easily, not even me. But then I didn’t know this child from a bar of soap,” Majavu said. “The social workers advised me not to bombard him or else he would shut down and I took their advice.”

Majavu learned the child had dropped out of school and quietly slipped through the cracks in the social welfare system. When he was arrested, he was living in the horse stable on Terre’Blanche’s farm. Although most children in the nearby Tshing township where he was raised were afraid of AWB members, the boy had been working for the AWB leader.

Terre’Blanche had been trying to revive the AWB but had reportedly run out of money after he was sentenced to six years in prison in 2001 for assaulting a petrol station worker and the attempted murder of a security guard.

The teenager and Mahlangu have been charged with the murder of Terre’Blanche, housebreaking and robbery with aggravating circumstances, crimen injuria and attempted robbery with aggravating circumstances.

The charge of crimen injuria relates to the accused allegedly pulling Terre’Blanche’s pants to his knees and exposing his private parts.

Allegations that Terre’Blanche had been sexually involved with the accused were unfortunate, said Majavu. “I specifically conversed with my client on the issue of whether there had been any sexual activity and he denied it,” said Majavu. “Nothing like that emanated from him.”

While Majavu will not disclose the nature of his defence before the trial, he said his client would plead not guilty in court.

As the first test case for the new Child Justice Act, implemented on April 1, Majavu’s moves are being keenly followed by members of the legal fraternity. The attorney said the boy had been fortunate that, in line with the newly implemented Act, he was immediately taken to a place of safety. In the past he could have been held in a police cell or in prison, where he would have come into contact with adult offenders.

Majavu said he had prepared a bail application for his client but had waited for a probation officer’s report before making a final decision. Before the Act was implemented, in a case involving minor, a social worker was not guaranteed to act as a probation officer. This is obligatory under the new Act.

“I told my client what his probation officer had recommended, which is that he should remain at the place of safety. He had thought that if he got bail he would still be able to go back to the place of safety, but I had to explain to him this would not happen,” said Majavu. “He changed his mind and asked me not to apply for bail.”

In keeping with the new Act, at a pre-trial preliminary inquiry convened last week, the teenager had to explain to magistrate Makgaola Foso why he would not be applying for bail. He told Foso he would be “better off” at the place of safety, where he was getting three meals a day and was enrolled in an education programme.

His mother and an uncle, the probation officer and his defence team were present at the inquiry.

“My client is getting professional help and he’s got a decent bed, food, kids to play with and a television to watch,” said Majavu. “I know he’s following the news about the case, but there’s nothing I can do about that.”

The teenager appears to have a comfortable relationship with his family, who Majavu described as “very poor”. Police confirmed that the boy had been caught breaking into a biscuit factory and had been serving a sentence under correctional supervision at the time of his arrest.

A 15-year-old is considered old enough to have the capacity to stand trial for murder and in this case the probation officer pronounced the teenager fit to stand trial. His socioeconomic situation was investigated by the probation officer, who becomes the eyes and ears of the court.

Majavu said the boy was experiencing the benefits of the new Act and, with the high-profile nature of his case, there were other benefits.

“Child psychologists are phoning in offering free counselling,” he said. “Other people want to send them food parcels.”

Also read:
Precedents opened the door to media
Making sure no child offender is left behind

These articles were made possible with funding from the Open Society Foundation for South Africa Media Fellowship Programme.

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