All's fur in this 'bloody business'

Advocate Annelene van den Heever (centre) and accused Margaret Wilhelm (right) leave the court. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Advocate Annelene van den Heever (centre) and accused Margaret Wilhelm (right) leave the court. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

“How can a few people over the age of 60 seriously be considered terrorists? Most of us are in need of hip replacements.”

So said Margaret Wilhelm, a clinical psychologist and an animal rights activist, who was part of a protest at a mall in Rosebank, Johannesburg. She and other protesters are accused of sticking “Fur kills” bumper stickers on the shop window of an upmarket furrier.

This would land her in the inner-city Hillbrow magistrate’s court on a charge of malicious damage to property.

For Robert Fischer, co-owner and manager of Erich Fischer Furriers, Wilhelm had crossed a line. Fischer told the Mail & Guardian: “It is an act of urban terrorism to put my company’s name into disrepute and they vandalised my property.”

He was referring to T-shirts – Erich Fischer Furriers a Bloody Business – worn by the activists at their “silent protest” against the furriers in August last year.
They also produced a video, which can be seen on YouTube, of activists walking through the mall, some wearing what appear to be fake furs and T-shirts that had been dipped in red dye. The protesters arrive outside Fischer’s store and are met by a man who appears to be a plainclothes policeman. The man asks the protesters whether they had stickers or spray paint that they “wanted to put on the windows”. On the footage, the demonstrators are heard to say they were “just walking”.

Sometime after this, Wilhelm and others allegedly stuck stickers on the glass windows of the shop.

  “I consider the term ‘urban terrorist’ ridiculous. I take it very seriously,” she told the M&G ahead of her court date.

Malicious damage
Fischer was not at the shop, but when he arrived the next day, all but one sticker had apparently been removed. He said they could not remove the sticker and it had to be scraped off. Fisher then opened a case of malicious damage to property against Wilhelm at the Rosebank police station.

  Wilhelm, who is a member of Fur Free South Africa, told the M&G: “We had educational bumper stickers on the day and everyone [the activists] complained the stickers weren’t sticking properly. Most of them were falling off,” she said.

A week after the silent protest, Wilhelm was telephoned by an officer from the Rosebank police station who told her there was a warrant out for her arrest. Her attorney advised her to not make a statement and negotiated with the police that she pay bail of R1 000. She was told to appear at the Hillbrow magistrate’s court on February 2.

Fischer said the bumper sticker had damaged his window. He said he had noticed dirt marks and scratches on the glass. “The [glass] panel needs to be replaced. Who will pay for that?” he asked. Fischer said the damage to the window would cost him R17 000. He said he rented the property and he would have to pay his landlord for any damages incurred.

“Look, everyone has the right to an opinion but to slate someone because of race, religion, culinary choices or the clothes they choose to wear? You can’t act on it.” Fischer said he had decided to pursue a case against Wilhelm because she had harassed him, his customers and employees for the past six years. “This is my livelihood; my employees depend on me,” said Fischer.

He added that many people depended on the informal fur industry – he also stocks sheepskin and cowhides. “What happens to their families then?”

  At 8am on Monday, Wilhelm was in courtroom four at the Hillbrow magistrate’s court. Outside, about 20 animal rights activists gathered, holding “Fur kills” and “Don’t buy fur” placards. Most of the activists said they had taken time off work to show support for Wilhelm.

‘Ridiculous’ case “I think it’s ridiculous that a case is being made against her when there are so many crimes committed in this country,” said 64-year-old language lecturer Anneke Malan, also a member of Fur Free South Africa. The activists were dressed in black jeans and T-shirts in solidarity with Wilhelm. They chatted among themselves, made calls on their phones and fiddled with their iPads.

Staring at the well-heeled activists, a man with a number of gold teeth read the placards, mouthing the words, “Fur kills, don’t wear fur,” and laughed. “That is not something one sees here,” he said.

At 9am, the activists began to file into the courtroom. But first there were other matters to take care of. A man was back in court after his case had been postponed a number of times because the state had not been able to collect enough evidence. The case was postponed again.

A 20-year-old woman from Lesotho was sentenced to 12 months in prison for attacking a woman six months ago. She had been in jail awaiting trial for six months and the magistrate informed her she would be deported after her release.

An hour later Wilhelm’s case was called. Fischer, dressed in a tweed jacket and yellow shirt, took the stand. He told the court how the stickers had damaged his shop windows, but advocate Annelene van den Heever, defending Wilhelm, objected. “Malicious damage to property is a simple charge. The question is, did the placing of the sticker cause the malicious damage or the scraping off of the sticker?”

Also at court was Stephen Finn, animal rights activist and a retired academic. He thought the case against Wilhelm was “ridiculous” and that “the greatest crime here is a crime against animals”.

Finn added that we “are not living 200 years or 500 years ago. We should be a people of compassion.”

      Furrier Rovbert Fischer
Plaintiff, furrier Robert Fischer. (Madelen Cronjé, M&G)

Robert Fischer, the son of Erich Fischer, has now taken over the running of the Rosebank furrier, and showed the M&G around.

The shop stocks, among other things, mink, rabbit, fox and one Canadian sable fur coat that costs R405 000. Robert reckons he gets about eight clients a day, most of whom come in for repairs and refurbishment to their furs and, on average, only one client would buy a new fur coat, which cost between R50 000 and R70 000.

“That’s a garment that is going to last for at least four generations and can be resold at a higher price,” he said.

‘Hypocritical’ about leather The animal rights activists and the anti-fur lobby groups often said there was no need to wear a fur coat in 2015, something he found moralistic and hypocritical. “Who are they to decide who needs a fur coat? Who are they to judge? It is hypocritical to say ‘no to fur and yes to leather and suede’. Fur is the other side of leather.”

He displayed a number of cowhides and mink skins on the table. The mink is still in its full form – four small legs, a tail almost as long as the body and holes where the eyes used to be. Fischer turns the mink inside out. “You see, that’s leather, that’s the skin,” he said.

The same animal rights activists who demonise the fur industry failed to demonise the high-end fashion industry, such as Louis Vuitton, which brags that their materials are 100% pure leather, said Robert.

Wilhelm is due back in court next week.

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