Andrew Harding, These are not Gentle People: A True Story (Johannesburg: Picador Africa, 2020)

AN OLD man is attacked on a farm near Parys in the northern Free State in January 2016 by two or three young African men. It later transpires that there may in fact have been no attack, but in the meantime a posse of forty farmers has pursued, cornered and severely assaulted two men, Samuel Tjixa and Simon Jubeba. Neither will survive.

During the ensuing investigation two of the prime suspects and their lawyer try to impress a code of silence on the Afrikaans farming community, most of whom form part of one extended family, the Van der Westhuizens. Evidence – clothing, shoes and a fan belt – is destroyed and a witness disappears to Mozambique for a while. But a couple of the younger members of the posse had sent out boastful WhatsApp messages. Caught out by electronic evidence, arrangements are made for six of the suspects to turn state witness. Solidarity collapses and the word ‘joiners’, dating from the Anglo-Boer War, is bandied about.

The case is recognised as politically explosive. The local police are sidelined and the Hawks move in; while the local magistrate, a woman from the Indian community, is seen as insufficiently compliant and replaced by her boss. The trial has a singular characteristic: no one involved seems entirely sure which of the victims is which and they are hardly ever referred to by name. The prosecution is of uneven quality and the autopsy results are deplorable. Indeed, the man who conducted the examinations was not qualified at the time and in one case there is doubt if he was working on the correct body.

It remains unclear exactly how and when the victims died. The defence claims that they could have succumbed from a journey in the back of a police van across rough terrain en route to an ambulance; or through medical negligence. A murder verdict is impossible given the degree of reasonable doubt and five men are convicted of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm. The police officer charged with them is acquitted. The state witnesses (204s) who also took part in the assault are exonerated, but it is unclear why so many were necessary. The Hawks do not emerge well from this saga.

The case took four and a half years to stumble through the judicial system. The elderly farmer supposedly attacked probably injured himself, but a local history of brutal farm murders was enough to unleash a frenzy of violence. The later schism among the farmers took on class lines separating the golf estate dwellers from the near-bankrupt failures. A war from over a century earlier was evoked. This time those accused of being joiners were the wealthy.

Harding has done a sterling job of reportage, skilfully evoking the atmosphere of a small Free State town; one that is relatively prosperous compared with many. He draws no overall conclusions and leaves the reader to form general opinions. It is clear that not much has changed in the farming world of the Free State with the demise of apartheid and that everyone – white farmers, black indunas and black workers, and their families – live in a state of tension and fear with explosive potential. The deaths of Tjixa and Jubeba seem almost inevitable. And the female relatives of all those involved are in a sense the main victims of a system to which there appears to be no peaceful outcome until, in Harding’s view, differing, orbiting personal realities are fully appreciated.

The farms are still run on essentially feudal lines. Two young black men lie in the cemetery. There is indeed nothing gentle about this part of the world.