Living with one foot in the grave
‘Big House” is an informal settlement that can barely be seen from the main road. On either side of the road, power lines – from the Komati power plant – tower over hectares and hectares of green veld. If you follow a beaten-down, muddy path, you will find yourself in the community that is, ironically, not big at all. Big House has fewer than 30 solidly built mud structures. Kids playing coy at the sight of a camera roam the small area excitedly, occasionally tripping over a chicken, kitten or pig.
It is a close-knit community that has long been forgotten by the outside world. There is not a shop in sight for kilometres, not a single taxi passed by in the time City Press spent there.
Big House has seen a number of visitors today after social media caught wind of a disturbing video depicting one of their own being shoved into a coffin by two white men. Victor Rethabile Mlotshwa is heard giving a gut-wrenching cry as one of his attackers shoves the lid of the coffin over his upper body, while the other tells him how he is about to pour petrol over the coffin. The pair are Willem Oosthuizen and Theo Martins Jackson.
Aaron Runeyi (60) – known fondly around these parts as “Madala” – recalls the day it happened.
“Victor is like my son. He actually kept this thing from us in the beginning,” he says, standing outside the home he has lived in for more than 18 years.
“He [Victor] arrived looking very ashy and I asked what had happened. He said: ‘Hayi, no, Madala, there is no problem.’ I said to him, but look at how you look, washing yourself off at a communal tap near your home. What is happening? He insisted that he was fine. I said your condition says otherwise. He said: ‘This white man chased me on the other side, but I am fine.’”
Some time before Mlotshwa showed up at his home, another resident had raised the alarm, saying that Mlotshwa had been caught by the two men.
Delton Sithole (27) is a general worker at the nearby coal mine. On 17 August, he too was assaulted by the two men. He is reluctant to talk about it, saying he has already told the story more times than he cares to. But within moments of City Press’ arrival, most of the residents have come out and are pleading with Sithole to tell his story.
“The issue now is that your story is being erased. What happened to you was also traumatic. Telling your story will help,” one young man says firmly.
Sithole is handed a stool and reluctantly sits. Wearing jeans and a red Orlando Pirates jersey, his veins pop out as he clenches his fist waiting to be prompted.
He recalls how at about 8am that day he was walking when a bakkie stopped alongside him and asked where he was going. He explained that he was just passing by. Moments later, the man in the bakkie got out and the two got into a physical fight.
“I was clearly overpowering him. He got back into the bakkie and pulled out a gun and I ran. I lost him and after a while walked normally again. Then another bakkie came from a different direction and hit me. I fell and was picked up and thrown in the back. He drove me back to the farm where the first guy was and they started kicking me.” Sithole says the pair were then distracted by Mlotshwa walking in the distance. “There goes another k*ffir, they said and then left me alone to go deal with Victor.” Injured as he was, Sithole made his way back home to say that Mlotshwa had been caught. Speaking to City Press, Madala says that they have always heard horror stories of what was happening on surrounding farms but never had any proof of it, until now. “I have always known that the farmers in the area are cruel hearted but never had proof or suspected that they would go this far. Those who work on the farms have always been tight lipped about what happens there. We live our own lives here, there is no boer dictating life to us here,” he said. “I want to know about this coffin. Why it is just laying around on this farm? What purpose does it serve for this farmer? We have heard about this coffin, but it has always been a myth because no one had seen it and no one was speaking out about it.” It is clear that Madala is the father figure of the residents. He says that he thought they had been done with these kinds of incidents post-1994 when he voted in Nelson Mandela. On the day that Sithole came and told him what had happened, he was prepared to march up to the farm and walk there as an act of defiance. “I was not scared to go there because you must remember the struggle which I come from. There is little which I fear now, having gone through those things during apartheid.” As Madala speaks a roar in the background is ever present, it is the conveyer belt which supplies coal to the power plant. Despite Big House’s proximity to the plant, there is no electricity or water in the houses. “We have been told countless times that we do not have the correct infrastructure for water and lights. We get told new homes with the correct piping will be built for us but we are yet to see any of that.” The residents make do with what they have, makeshift chimneys made from rolled up asbestos sheets protrude from some homes, smoke drifting out of them. While residents have it tough, they are a cheerful bunch with a deep respect for each other as if they were all one family. About 40km from here is Middleburg where the magistrates’ court has seen a fair amount of action. Oosthuizen and Martins appeared briefly. The two men were seen walking into the court room free of any shackles, causing outrage on social media where many compared their treatment to that of student leader Mcebo Dlamini, who was seen with ankle cuffs at his bail hearing. The pair have abandoned their bid for bail, saying they fear for their lives. They will remain behind bars until 25 January in the new year.
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Theo Martins Jackson and Willem Oosthuizen