Henri’s uncle: why we forgive him
Henri van Breda’s uncle still can’t make sense of what happened on the night of the murders but believes forgiveness is the only way forward
HE LONGS for the days when he could wake up in the morning feeling rested and refreshed. But for the past three years it’s been the same pattern: almost every night, like clockwork, he wakes with a jolt at around 3am. Then he tries to make sense of the tragic event that’s been part of his life for so long – the gruesome axe murder at the exclusive De Zalze estate outside Stellenbosch which left his brother, sister-in-law and nephew dead.
André van Breda admits he’s agonised a lot since 27 January 2015, when he received the news of the horrific triple murder of Martin (54), Teresa (55) and their son Rudi (22). But these days it’s thoughts about their younger son, Henri (23), who was recently sentenced to three life terms for the crime, that keep him awake.
“I start thinking about Henri being in prison, wondering if the child has enough blankets to keep him warm in bed,” André (64) says.
André gave evidence in the gruelling trial which concluded recently with Judge Siraj Desai delivering a damning verdict in which he described Henri as a “cold-blooded murderer” who had no remorse for his actions. Henri’s younger sister, Marli (then 16), was the only survivor of the attack but was left with extensive injuries.
For André the past few years have presented endless worries and yet despite everything his expression softens at the mention of Henri’s name. He tells us how his nephew seemed “upbeat and happy” when he and a few other family members together with Henri’s girlfriend, Daniellé Janse van Rensburg (23), visited him at Drakenstein Correctional Centre between Paarl and Franschhoek in the Western Cape just days after his sentencing.
“He was in a good mood and was making jokes,” André says. “He was the old Henri we used to know.
“We had a lovely family discussion. It was light and nice and we didn’t talk about the details [of the case]. It was an open conversation about the goings-on there [in prison].”
Although things are
looking bad for Henri right now, André says they’re by no means dire. “Not at all. To be moved from Pollsmoor [near Cape Town] to Drakenstein was absolutely the right thing for this child. He was peaceful, calm and spontaneous. He laughed.”
André says the prison reminds him of the army.
“It was a pleasant surprise and I was impressed. The prisoners are clean and shaven with neatly cropped hair. It was quite pleasant and Henri was himself again – the opposite of what we’d seen in court.”
André says Henri told the family the food is an improvement on what is served at Pollsmoor, where he was held before sentencing.
He says Daniellé was happy to be reunited with her boyfriend. “She’s also very happy about the environment he’s in now.”
They took him toiletries such as deodorant and soap.
André says it was easier seeing Henri this time than it was a few days earlier. After sentencing, Martin’s brothers, a handful of other relatives and Daniellé were allowed to see Henri briefly near the court’s holding cells as he prepared to start his new life behind bars.
“We told him to be strong and he said he would – he’s a Van Breda. We said we hoped he’d use this opportunity to reflect,” André continues. “And that he’d further his education.”
He says Daniellé has since told them that both she and Henri intend studying law.
Right now more than anything André is just relieved the court case is over.
“We’re much calmer now,” he says. “We have closure.”
ANDRÉ says the family is grateful to Daniellé for supporting Henri so well. But he’s worried about how painfully thin she’s become in the past months as the trial drew to a close.
“Something’s wrong. We took her out for a meal, but she would only order water and a cooldrink,” he says.
Daniellé had been living in Wynberg, Cape Town, during the last stretch of the trial. André says when the family asked her where she was planning to move to now she said time would tell.
“That child is going through a tough time,” he says.
As he talks to us in the tranquil Salem Biblical Garden outside Paarl, André’s gaze sweeps over the Boland scenery. He lives in Pretoria where he runs a business that operates payment systems but as the trial reached its close he put work on hold to support his nephew.
He and his wife, Antoinette (63), have been staying with a cousin as they waited for the court to hand down its sentence. It’s been a tumultuous time for the family.
Shortly before our interview André bade farewell to Bailey, his twin brother whom he describes as his closest confidant. With the trial finally concluded, Bailey had to return to Mbombela in Mpumalanga where he’s a property developer.
But we’ve hardly sat down when the phone rings. It’s Bailey just saying a quick hello after his plane had landed.
André smiles ruefully as he recalls anecdotes from their childhood in Paarl nearly 50 years ago. Their parents, Bailey and Martie, moved the family from Kakamas in the Northern Cape to Paarl when the twins were about to enter high school.
He still has fond recollections of them popping their baby brother, Martin, who was seven years their junior, in the boot of their Beetle when they went exploring around the town. According to André his kid brother showed genius qualities early in life. “He was a top student from Sub A [Grade 1] to matric. Bailey and I had to study hard but he didn’t.”
He says years later when they were in business together it became evident to him that Martin had a photographic memory.
“We’d sit in board meetings and read through a document. I’d be halfway through a page but Martin would already be on the next page.
“I’d tell him, ‘Martin you have to read the stuff ’, then he’d say, ‘Test me!’”
Martin studied civil engineering at the University of Stellenbosch, then moved to Pretoria where he met Teresa through mutual friends.
Years later André stayed with Martin and his family for work purposes for four months, before they moved to Australia. “There wasn’t any tension in their home. None. The kids were relaxed. They all had duties. Henri had to feed the dogs, Teresa washed the dishes, Marli dried, Rudi looked after the swimming pool.”
Then his thoughts turn to Henri again and his eyes well up. “He was such a friendly child, always. He was small and scrawny then, and whenever I visited he’d be first to meet me at the car. Then he’d carry up my luggage.
“None of us can believe it. That child . . . When I look at photos of him at home it doesn’t make sense. Somewhere something went terribly wrong.”
Even though Henri hasn’t admitted to the murders to anyone in the family, they’ve had to forgive him, André says. “If you can’t forgive, you won’t live very long.”
He and Bailey intend supporting Henri just as Teresa’s family did and will visit him whenever they can. But André is painfully aware that when he returns home all he’ll have left of his little brother are memories.
He thinks of his sibling every time he switches on his laptop because it’s the same computer Martin used to use.
After all that’s happened, does he really still love his nephew? André doesn’t hesitate for a second. “Blood is thicker than water,” he replies. “That’s what family is about.”
André van Breda is relieved the trial that followed the murder of his younger brother, Martin, is over and says the family accept the judge’s verdict. BELOW: He and his twin brother, Bailey (left), have always been close and supported each other during this difficult time.
FAR LEFT: Henri van Breda greets his uncle André during the trial in which Bailey appeared as a state witness. LEFT: Henri just after he’d received three life sentences. BELOW: His girlfriend, Daniellé Janse van Rensburg, chats to André and Bailey at court.