Chris Mahlangu was on Tuesday found guilty of brutally murdering Eugene Terre’Blanche just over two years ago, bringing to a close the first part of a complex prosecution. His co-accused was found guilty of breaking into Terre’Blanche’s house with the intent to steal at the same time, and to have been in close proximity to the murder, but not to have been a participating or to have had common cause with Mahlangu.
The verdict, much as had been expected, drew little reaction from right-wing groups that had gathered in Ventersdorp for the delivery.
Judge John Horn dismissed suggestions by the defence that Mahlangu had acted in self defence, or that there had been a physical altercation. He also dismissed claims that Terre’Blanche had sodomised at least one of his workers, or that there had been any complex motive to the crime.
“There was no sign that the deceased defended himself during the attack,” he said.
Mahlangu will remain in custody until a sentencing hearing, and pending a likely appeal. Though the timing was not immediately clear on Tuesday, his co-accused is likely to walk free almost immediately.
In a long and complex judgment, Horn rejected much of the version of events offered by the accused, as well as various explanations that had been put foreword in their defence. But on the basis of blood-splatter evidence he said it was inconceivable that the teenager could have taken part in the murder.
The judgment is the first finding in a high-profile criminal matter to fall under the Child Justice Act, which came into effect just days before Terre’Blanche’s death.
No new duties
In a decision that is likely to be closely studied, Horn found that the law imposes no new duties or responsibilities on police when dealing with young accused, and stressed that youth offenders should not be shielded from prosecution.
But in giving his reasons for declaring a crucial piece of evidence against the teen accused inadmissible, Horn raised the treatment of what he described as a probably scared and disorientated child.
“The police could have handled the child’s situation with more circumspection and solicitude,” he said. In a separate decision, before delivery judgment, Horn found that the teenaged accused could be photographed in court – before judgment would be delivered.
Though he was just short of his 16th birthday at the time of Terre’Blanche’s death, the accused recently turned 18. That decision drew immediate criticism.
“Our view is that both the court and the media went to great lengths to protect the identify of the child,” said Media Monitoring Africa director William Bird. “We had a ruling that balanced freedom of expression with the best interests of the child. For that protection to fall away merely as a result of the slow process of the justice system seems not only absurd but patently unfair to the child and the entire process and all efforts to protect his privacy thus far.”
Terre’Blanche’s family expressed fierce disappointment with the acquittal of the teenage accused, while saying Mahlangu should spent the rest of his life in jail.
“He was guilty,” said family member Andre Nienaber, of the teenager.
“He was part of it. He admitted it. He should never go free.”
One-time AWB leader and now head of the Geloftevolk Republikeine, Andre Visagie, said the court had no choice in its judgment, given the evidence to hand, and that his group would not fight the verdict. They would be more interested in seeing what sentence Mahlangu receives, he said.
“We as a people want to see what message the court send out to the farm murderers out there. Do they spend three or five years in jail, and then get out to murder again? If a firm message is not sent out to the farm murderers, then the rainbow nation will remain a dream.”
Current AWB leader Steyn van Ronge said his group blamed poor police work for the acquittal of the teen accused “on a technicality”.
“We are very disappointed that he will now walk free despite all the alleged evidence against him.”
But once sentencing is complete the AWB would consolidate and focus on its mandate of training members in self-defence, he said.
Outside the court, black community members were in a generally jovial mood, saying justice had been done in the case of the teenager. Opinion on Mahlangu was more divided, but many of those gathered said they too would wait for sentencing, to see if “this public service” was too harshly punished.
Police maintained a heavy presence around the court, but were called into action only to defuse a minor altercation, involving a white doll, between a protesting group of black residents and uniformed right-wingers.
Mahlangu and the teenager were charged with beating Terre’Blanche to death in his farmhouse outside Ventersdorp in the North West on April 3 2010. Both pleaded not guilty to murder, housebreaking and robbery with aggravating circumstances.
Mahlangu claimed he acted in self-defence. The teenager denied involvement in the crime. Mahlangu and the youth declined to testify. The state and the defence closed their cases last month.