Story of an African farm murder

Farm workers Bonginkosi and Sam Mhlongo, whose father Zakeue Mhlongo was a gardener at Sherwood farm. (Rogan Ward, M&G)

Farm workers Bonginkosi and Sam Mhlongo, whose father Zakeue Mhlongo was a gardener at Sherwood farm. (Rogan Ward, M&G)

When Neville Karg began his testimony in the Pietermaritzburg High Court 2 on March 19 he could, for all appearances, have been addressing the driver of the milk truck that visits his dairy on Sherwood Farm each day.

Granted, his children Brandon and Kita had made him take a powerful tranquiliser shortly beforehand and, as far as court rooms go, Court 2, which is carpeted and naturally lit by a vault of hexagonal skylights, is an oddly calmative space.

The accused, Mzwandile Magubane and Nhlanhla Dladla, who had been picked up by the police a week after the murders of Karg's wife Lorraine, their domestic worker Hilda Linyane, and gardener Zakeue Mhlongo, kept their eyes down during the farmer's testimony. Neville did not search for theirs. Instead he drummed the wooden box he was standing in, scratched his white hair, and told the court he had been married for 36 years, that he and his deceased wife Lorraine had built up the herd on Sherwood for 12 of those, and that "we do also have a few crops to feed the cows".

The state prosecutor in the case was Dheelan Naidoo, as softly spoken as Neville and in the habit of shaving his face right up to the level of his hairline, so that the arms of his sunglasses cross only skin on the way to his dark and immaculately groomed temples.
Facing imprecisely in the direction of the witness stand, Naidoo, who is blind, asked Neville to tell the court what had transpired on July 21 2010.

"It was an ordinary day on the farm," Neville began. "We had just begun supper when I received a tele-phone call from my son Brandon, saying the manager had reported a fire on Sherwood among the new hay bales. I told Brandon I would go to investigate and then called him back and asked him to send more workers to help extinguish the fire.

"I also phoned my wife and asked her to bring workers from Sherwood. A few minutes later I phoned back to ask her to bring bush knives so the beaters could cut branches to fight the fire. My wife never arrived. I told Brandon I'd go back to see what the problem was. I entered the yard and parked the bakkie next to the house. I opened the laundry door and found two people lying there. One was motionless, and the other indicated I should leave because there were many people in the house."

The still figure was Hilda Linyane, already dead at this point. The person who waved the farmer away was Bonginkosi Mhlongo, Zakeue's son, who worked in the farm dairy. When Neville returned with the police they searched the yard and found the car with the doors open.

Bled to death
"Next to the tree next to the car I found my wife's body. She had been dead for a while," he said.

The forensic pathologist who conducted the postmortem on Lorraine told the court that the large laceration from centre to right of her neck had severed the carotid artery and jugular vein. He estimated that she bled to death over a period of 15 to 20 minutes.

The suspects sitting in the dock seemed morphologically incapable of causing such damage – too little by far, their skinniness accentuated by messy, uncut hair. They seemed unsuited to physical labour generally, and yet both had worked on Sherwood Farm.

Accused number one, Magubane, had done some painting in 2006 but had left because he did not have an ID book and "everyone on the farm", said Neville, "has to have an identification book". Magubane's state-appointed attorney, the first of them at any rate, put it to the farmer that Magubane had left because he was paid only R600 a month.

"We don't pay less than minimum wage," Neville shot back. "All employees are registered and put on the books, so the information is verifiable." Naidoo later said that in cases where the complainant is a white farm owner and the accused a black farm worker – when there has been a violent attack – it is not uncommon for the defence to try and depict the farmer as a brute.

The substrate for such a defence is cheaply available in South Africa. Human rights defenders like the Surplus People Project and Human Rights Watch regularly release biblical reports in which South Africa's white commercial farmers are indicted for an array of abuses, including underpayment and physical violence.

Magubane's attorney chose not to probe the labour conditions on Sherwood Farm, however, perhaps because the softly-spoken dairyman before the court did not fit the caricature of the exacting farmer. Or possibly she had put herself in the judge's chair with its view of the farm-owning Kargs sitting next to the farm-working Linyanes and Mhlongos, all of whom held hands when the forensic pathologist had delivered his grisly testimony.

'Good worker'
Accused number two, Nhlanhla Dladla, had been employed on Sherwood Farm at the time the murders took place.

"We taught him to drive, we taught him plumbing," said Neville. "I thought him a star worker and so he was promoted through the ranks until he ended up driving one of the biggest tractors."

Naidoo asked Neville about a third suspect, Colin Mapalala, who was not present in court. Neville explained that Mapalala had also been a tractor driver on Sherwood and that he had considered him a "good worker" too, until he crashed three times in short succession.

"We thought he was on drugs so our disciplinary committee-all disciplinary issues are settled by a committee of senior farm workers – downgraded him to general labourer. When this happened he disappeared," said Neville.

"Where is Mapalala now?" I whispered to a thirty-something man who wore a black suit and slid endlessly up and down his gallery pew like a bean on an abacus wire, explaining aspects of the criminal justice system to the families of the deceased.

"Dead. Shot in police custody going for a handgun. I'll tell you about this later. For now you'll want to pay attention, something interesting is happening here."

Neville stepped down and was replaced by a black male in his twenties who bore a striking resemblance to accused number one, Magubane.

"This is the state witness," said the curious court oracle, who was called Jones. "See that guy over there?" He nodded in the direction of the bar table at a thickset white male in his fifties with a golden white moustache. "That's Colonel Piet Scott, the head of the Pietermaritzburg organised crime unit. He's here to see whether his 204 sings."

In South Africa's police parlance,  state witnesses are called 204s – section 204 witnesses – and the problem with this particular 204 was his relationship with the accused.

Possession
Velaphi Magubane was Mzwandile's kid brother, and Scott was in court because he was concerned that, for the first time in his 31-year-long career, a 204 was about to flip on him.

"Yes it's true that I made a statement," Velaphi told the court. "We were fetched by police officers at 2am. There were four of us, one of whom is now dead. We were taken into the room where he was lying dead, still handcuffed, and the policemen there told us if we didn't confess we would end up like him. Then we were taken and beaten, and what we told was not the truth."

Scott sprang up at this point and left the court by the side door. The normally inscrutable Naidoo stammered a little and asked for a day "in which to reassess the situation", and by then Scott was outside rearresting Velaphi Magubane in front of a group of amused attorneys.

"Possession of a firearm," he said to the investigating officer, indicating what the new charge should be, and the man who had just minutes before traded his get out of jail free card to protect family was led away trailing the words "we warned you not to fuck with us. Didn't we warn you?"

The likely nature of the defence was becoming clear – yes we confessed, yes we pointed out the crime scene to police officers, but it was because we were beaten, everything we said was lies.

When Mzwandile Magubane was shooed back down to the holding cells at the end of day one he flashed Neville Karg a winning smile. To the children of Hilda Linyane and Zakeue Mhlongo – Priscilla and Innocent, Sam and Bonginkosi he whispered, "see you in Africa," which made Priscilla cry. Innocent Linyane put his arms on the pew in front of him and began knocking his forehead repeatedly against his wrist bones.

"Poor guy," said Jones. "He doesn't know it yet but the 204 was the only thing holding accused number two to the murders. Tomorrow, Nhlanhla Dladla walks."

Full moon
Bonginkosi Mhlongo, son of the murdered gardener, Zakeue,  told the court that he had knocked off work at 7pm on the day of the murders and was returning to his home in the staff compound on Sherwood Farm when he bumped into Innocent's mother, Hilda, who said there was a fire on the farm. Bonginkosi clambered into a waiting vehicle with his father Zakeue, Lorraine Karg, Hilda Linyane and Innocent.

It was a full moon and a perfectly clear night. After the crew had turned back for the bush knives,  Lorraine Karg left the car and entered the farmhouse. When she emerged again she was followed by two men in balaclavas, one of whom was carrying a knife. Hilda Linyane hissed "down, everyone get down and hide," and the boys listened, though Bonginkosi said he saw the man with the knife fall on Lorraine Karg, "and when he stood up there was blood under her head".

The second attacker knocked on the car window with a gun, somehow opened one of the doors, and ordered the four occupants into the farmhouse, where they were made to lie down in the laundry. A gunshot went off.

"Hilda was groaning and they were kicking her. She ended up being silent." Then, Bonginkosi continued, his father was next. "They made my father stand and kept saying to him 'don't look at us'. He told them 'take what you want and leave us alone' and the one said, 'oh, he thinks he is clever, shoot him.' There was a fight and they took my father outside. After that they came back breathing heavily."

Of all the injuries inflicted that night Zakeue's were the worst by far. The 65-year-old had been slaughtered in the same fashion as Lorraine Karg, in the way one would slaughter a goat, by pulling the head back and slicing through the jugular and carotid, except with Zakeue the killer kept on cutting so that, looking aghast at the crime scene pictures in his copy of the docket the judge in his red coat asked the forensic pathologist "has his neck been cut all the way through?" To which the doctor replied "not quite m'lord, the skin on the neck is tight and this has amplified the appearance of the injury."

Jones slid near again and told me that criminologists had two theories about what drives a person to cut another person's throat.

"The one says that it's a very intimate method of killing, which usually denotes that the killer knew the victim. The other, definitely home-grown, points to the fact that injuries of this nature are more common in the rural areas, where people are accustomed to slaughtering animals in this way, and says there's little intimacy to the method at all, that it's sort of like ... habit."

Lost faith
At the end of the first week of the trial, Magubane told the court that he had lost faith in his state-appointed attorney, whom, he said, had told him he was "talking shit". Nobody was happy about that, least of all the judge and his assessors, but the trial was nevertheless remanded until July 16. Innocent decided not to stick around.

"Nhlanhla is free and I'm told Velaphi will even get bail soon. In Zimbabwe there's nothing like that, in Zimbabwe you kill a killer," Innocent had said, before leaving South Africa for good.

In matters of farm safety, Innocent had come to feel that all who lived on the farm were not equal.

"When you're staying on the farm it's not like you're Mr Karg, who has the electricity wire around his home, maybe his own gun. For us there are no burglar bars, we can die any time," he said.

The focus of the trial, when it resumed on July 16, was the counter-accusation Mzwandile Magubane had made of police brutality, which had compelled the judge to order a "trial within a trial", in which the onus was on the state to prove that all evidence in its possession which had been gained through interrogation had been gathered procedurally, and not through brutality.

At stake was the "pointing out" of the crime scene that Magubane had done on the day of his arrest, evidence which, if the judge found that it was gathered fairly, would have been most damning, especially since Magubane already faced the prospect of having to explain how his palm print came to be on a wall of the Karg's farmhouse laundry room. Magubane's only hope rested in his new attorney's ability to identify procedural slip-ups made by the police during interrogation. But Colonel Scott's unit simply doesn't make silly mistakes.

There are nine members in his unit, the youngest of whom is 47. In 12 years, between 2000 and 2012, the unit has responded to 20 farm murder cases in the Midlands and has solved 19 of these. Forty-nine suspects have been arrested in the process and 40 of these are now serving life sentences, with six still on trial.

Conviction rates
In 2003 the criminologist Duxita Mistry found that conviction rates for farm crimes tended to be higher than many people believed, at around 50%, compared with 6% for urban crimes. Even read against these little-known statistics the achievement of Scott's unit is exceptional, truly antithetical to popular perceptions about the performance of the police in rural areas. And yet the great silence of the trial was Mapalala's death in police custody.

According to the officer's present, Mapalala had made a move for a weapon in the fingerprinting room. The Independent Complaints Directorate had accepted the version of events relayed by the police and so it could not play a part in the trial, but nobody present was ignorant of the context: five of the 49 suspects who were arrested had died in custody. And this should be seen within a broader context for the KwaZulu-Natal police of 527 suspects killed in custody the past three years, the highest for any province, an aberration that had been making media headlines all year. In the end, however, the judge was left with little choice but to find that Magubane had not been brutalised.

Directly after the trial within the trial was concluded, resulting in the admissibility of the "pointing out" Magubane had made of the crime scene, Magubane's attorney announced that his client wished to take no further part in the trial, or in other words that he would not try to rebut the evidence against him. This meant the details contained in the "pointing out" are the closest the families are likely to come to understanding why the men involved in the attack on Sherwood Farm did what they did.

Magubane reportedly said that he had been working on a farm near Eshowe in Zululand prior to the crime but had been chased away because he did not have an ID book, and he had come to Sherwood Farm because he needed money to get it from Pretoria. The attack was supposed to have been a robbery but he had brought a knife along which he had "used to kill the madala (old man-Zakeue Mhlongo), because the madala had tried to fight him". Colin Mapalala, who he called Mqobi, "killed the mlungu (white person-Lorraine Karg) and the Zimbabwean (Hilda Linyane)".

The following day, Friday July 27, almost exactly two years after he was arrested, Mzwandile Magubane was handed three life sentences by Judge MT Ncube, plus an additional 15 years for stealing a cellphone.


Plaasmoord: Behind the scenes

Sean Christie spent two years researching farm murders. He spoke to victims and witnesses – farmers whose wives were killed for nothing more than a cellphone, the son of an elderly farmworker whose throat was slit by marauders, a woman farmer who refuses to leave despite four attacks and a shotgun blast to the face.

As he investigates, Christie learns that the situation is far more complex than newspaper headlines suggest. In this excerpt from his in-depth piece Plaasmoord: Behind the violence on South African Farms, he delves into the brutal murders on Sherwood Farm in KwaZulu-Natal.

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