The night before we arrive in Tarkastad to spend a day with magistrate Johannes (Jo) Els, the heavens open up and release more than 12mm of welcome rain. The problem is that lightning has taken out the town’s power. Jo had to finish the final pages of his nail-biting thriller by candlelight, and he’s also flushed with the drama of getting the household petrol generator going.
That sorted, Jo tosses his robe in the boot of his silver sedan and off we go to Ntabethemba where he presides as magistrate once a week. It’s a far-flung, generally unheard of spot that lies midway between Tarkastad and Queenstown. One of those odd rural settlements spawned by apartheid-era social architects.
Swallows under the eves
Ntabethemba is an administrative centre created to serve the isolated people of the old Ciskei. They were dumped here 40 years ago after being forcibly removed from various Eastern Cape towns like Herschel and Sterkspruit.
To the uninitiated, Ntabethemba looks no more substantial than a cowboy movie set surrounded by green rolling veld and glorious mountain views, with the roofs of Rocklands village gleaming in the distance. No one actually lives in Ntabethemba full-time. Government employees drive in from surrounding towns.
Apart from a rather solid-looking court building, there is a handful of provincial departments – an education office (closed), a health and animal care office (closed), a Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries branch (open) and precious little else.
The immaculately tarred streets are stained with cow dung. The post office recently closed, and the swallows have seized the opportunity to build their nests under the eaves.
Inside the Magistrates Court, it’s all action. The prosecutor, interpreter, Legal Aid attorney and clerk have gathered, mostly from Queenstown and Tarkastad, preparing everything for the court roll today. The court orderly, Sikhunjulwe Mpongwana (better known as Skhu), stands ready under a sign that reads Exit to Holding Cells.
Suddenly magistrate Jo Els appears, dressed in his official robe with red trim, and cloaked in authority. The court orderly intones, “All rise.” We’re in the public gallery with the villagers, some of whom are destined for the dock, while others have come for their weekly dose of reality drama.
As the morning unfolds, it seems prosecutor Luvuyo Moppie has been working hard to exercise justice and reconciliation behind the scenes. In at least five cases, he has found a way for the accused and the complainants to make peace with one another.
The final case of the day involves a young woman in a turquoise hoodie with purple-striped trim who is accused of theft, to which she admits guilt. Legal Aid attorney Khaya Sibeko hands Jo the written plea.
It emerges that the complainant (the woman’s sister-in-law) gave the accused her ATM card with the pin number and asked her to draw cash. Which the accused did, but then things went badly wrong. She went on a wild shopping spree, beginning at the nearest bottle store. Mr Sibeko asks for a suspended sentence.
Jo first addresses the complainant. “This happened, in part, because of your poor judgement. Yes, she is your sister-in-law, but you should never give anyone your ATM card and your pin number. You must both learn lessons from this.”
He turns to the accused, who looks contrite.
“You are sentenced to a fine of R2 000 or three months’ imprisonment, suspended for three years. If you are convicted of this offence again, you will no longer be a first offender, and the whole picture will change. I have seen prisons, and they are not nice places. You don’t want to end up there.”
Interpreter Mfundo Sefa translates his words into Xhosa, and the woman nods her understanding. At the end of it, the sisters-in-law walk out of court together.
At close of court, greetings are exchanged and everyone waits for a massive flock of sheep to cross the road, before driving home in various directions. Jo sighs, thinking about the day’s proceedings.
“If you could close down all the shebeens and bars, I’d be out of a job. At least 89 per cent of all assault cases that come before me involve alcohol abuse. With domestic violence, it’s even more – 99 per cent of all statements from wives or girlfriends contain the same words, ‘When he is drunk…’”
Jo has worked as a magistrate for 31 years now. He spends one day a week handling criminal cases at Ntabethemba, one day in Hofmeyr and the rest in Tarkastad. “The infrastructure of Ntabethemba is awkward, what with the Magistrates Office so removed and isolated from the community. People have to travel on horseback, donkey cart, on foot or by the odd available taxi to attend court proceedings.
“It is the somewhat abandoned foster child of the Department of Justice. Three different magistrates have to attend to various judicial aspects. I am allocated to the criminal court and two other magistrates from Queenstown and Whittlesea tend to civil and children’s court.
“Crime is rife in the area, with extremely high levels of unemployment, poverty and alcohol abuse. This leads to housebreaking, assault, murder, rape and stock theft. Those are the main crimes I see coming before me at Ntabethemba.
“Working conditions in the courtroom are difficult, yet I am often astonished at how diligently the staff perform their duties, with a smile and a friendly attitude. The court orderly Skhu, for example, has to arrange transport for prisoners from police cells or correctional service centres, often battling with problems. But he never complains, and always treats complainants and the accused with integrity, dignity and kindness.”
Jo sees cases involving drug abuse in all three courtrooms – mostly dagga and occasionally methamphetamines (tik). “But to me, the big drug remains alcohol abuse. Even when a sheep is stolen, it is usually to sell for money to go to the taverns. That’s why I say that if there was no alcohol abuse, I would be out of a job.”
Green is a calming colour
There is a misplaced perception that crime in the platteland is almost non-existent, often portrayed by the householder who tells you, “Out here in the country, we leave our doors unlocked and our windows open.”
As reports by organisations like the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) confirm, poverty and unemployment make for high levels of domestic violence and assaults. Stock theft is the other large factor in the platteland. A scan through any rural community newspaper will quickly tell the reader that most crime is committed around the taverns and shebeens of an area.
A point of comparison in the urban-rural crime dynamic is, simply put, a matter of numbers. In a city, it’s easy for a gang to slip back into township anonymity once a large crime has been committed. In a small dorp, everyone knows who you are.
The big difference between urban crime and rural crime in South Africa is that organised large-gang activities like shopping mall attacks, bank robberies, cash-in-transit heists and white-collar criminals are a ‘city thing’. Crime follows the money, and there’s obviously much more of it in the larger centres.
Back in Tarkastad, we visit Jo’s home base, the local Magistrates Court. This is where he has to preside over, among other things, the Children’s Court. And the cases, as you can imagine, are heart-wrenching.
“That’s why I absolutely insisted on having my office and my courtroom painted minty-green instead of government grey or boring beige,” says Jo. “Green is a calming colour.”
A brief light of justice
In his office, there are shelves full of hand-knitted teddy bears. They are there because of a little boy called Aviwe, who witnessed the murder of his mother by his father ten years ago. It fell to Jo and a social worker to plot out Aviwe’s future, but all the silent little boy could focus on was a little wooden elephant on Jo’s desk.
“At the end, I picked it up and gave it to him, and he clutched it, still not saying a word. It was because of Aviwe that I got this idea about toys. Not second-hand teddies – foster children always get broken and cast-off things. These are brand-new, knitted by a lady called Alison Budler. Each one is slightly different, and the child can personally choose one. They really seem to treasure those teddies, even the teenagers.”
Tarkastad and Hofmeyr see less crime, in part because they are more coherent communities, speculates Jo. “In Tarkastad, the prevalent crimes are also violence-related due to alcohol abuse and, as a farming community, stock theft is always taken very seriously.”
Would he ever swop this sometimes challenging rural life for the rush of the big city? Not for a second, says Jo. “Tarkastad is not crime-free, of course. But the town itself is relatively safe in comparison to any city. We are able to take a walk through the streets after dark without any fear. Most houses in Tarkastad do not have electric or palisade fences or vicious attack dogs. The community − black, brown, white − are at peace, relatively speaking. The same would apply to Hofmeyr, which has a core of settled, mostly retired homeowners.
“We breathe clean, fresh country air every day, eat farm eggs, enjoy prime Karoo meat. We have an abundance of doringhout for our fireplaces and braai fires. The people of Tarkastad rely on each other and buy locally where they can. That keeps the town alive.
“Unfortunately Ntabethemba does not have that character, because its people are scattered among the koppies. It remains an enigma, shunted to the side and still suffering from the long after-effects of apartheid engineering. It is virtually in a time warp of its own.”
But every week this little squad of legal people gathers there, in the middle of nowhere. And a brief light of justice and hope shines on Ntabethemba once more.
Pictures Chris Marais
Find more stories by Julienne and Chris at www.karoospace.co.za