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Apartheid casts a long shadow across South Africa

Andrew Harding’s new book, ‘These Are Not Gentle People,’ takes a deep look at community fear and mistrust

- June 23, 2022

In 2003, I took a few days after a conference to travel in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. I rented a car, managed to avoid a wreck while driving on the left for the first time, and drove north from Durban. My first stop was Ixopo, where South African writer Alan Paton set one of my favorite books, 1948’s “Cry, the Beloved Country.” The book tells the story of injustice and fear in South Africa’s then-new apartheid state. It includes one of my favorite passages in literature:

Before and during my trip, just about everyone I consulted — friends, hotel desk clerks, fellow conference attendees — warned me about driving in South Africa as a young, White woman alone. “Keep your purse in the trunk,” they cautioned. “Don’t open the windows for anyone, and don’t hesitate to drive through a red light if someone approaches your car.” The unspoken subtext was that, by default, I should be afraid of Black men, who could attack at any time, without warning. Despite the massive social changes that had occurred a decade before, fear still ruled the day.

Of course, those fears were overblown. I was completely safe, experiencing generous hospitality from almost everyone I encountered. My trip through this beautiful region ended with no trouble whatsoever.

I couldn’t help but think of that trip and Paton’s words when reading Andrew Harding’s magnificent and heartbreaking new book, “These Are Not Gentle People: Two Dead Men. Forty Suspects. The Trial that Broke a South African Town.” Harding tells the story of the 2016 murders of two young, Black men, Samuel Tjixa and Simon Jubeba, in a rural area near the town of Parys, in South Africa’s Free State. This deftly written book reveals how an all-consuming sense of fear and mistrust caused the murders — and undermined the effort to bring justice to the victims’ families.

Tjixa and Jubeba died after being beaten by a large group of White farmers, all of them Afrikaners and most of whom were related to one another. Beyond that, the facts of the case are unclear. Tjixa and Jubeba had approached the farm family’s patriarch either to ask for unpaid wages or to rob him. They may or may not have had a gun. The patriarch hit a panic button, and the two men began to run through the pastures, ultimately chased down by about 40 White farmers who had received a message to respond after the patriarch used the panic button to alert a private security network.

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The rest of the book tells the story of the police investigation and legal case. In doing so, Harding explores questions of fear, race and equality in post-apartheid South Africa, drawing a portrait of a community in which individuals of different racial groups are still very much afraid of one another. This lack of connection, trust and knowledge creates a vicious cycle, creating misunderstanding, fear and more mistrust.

For example, why did these farmers have a private security network in the first place, and what made them think it was okay to attack the two men rather than simply wait for police to arrive? As the narrative unfolds, we learn that there had been several rural attacks on and murders of White people, which prompted the farmers to organize. The long shadow of apartheid, in which White people did not face consequences for attacking Black people, looms, with the farmers believing in their absolute right to self-defense, with or without the law around.

At the same time, though, after he goes to complain to the police about needing more formal protection, one of those farmers is bewildered to learn that the rates of murders and sexual assaults are much higher in Parys’s all-Black townships, with several occurring every month. How would he distribute resources in such circumstances, asks the police chief. Fear, anger and violence are prevalent within groups, too, a point brought home as the wife of one of the accused farmers realizes that her husband has a long history of violence and abuse and believes that he is absolutely capable of doing the things of which he was accused.

While the narrative certainly focuses on trying to figure out the truth of what happened to Jubeba and Tjixa — and who actually killed them — “These Are Not Gentle People” is more nuanced than a typical true crime narrative. It focuses less on the gory details of the crime scene or the detective story, though we do learn about those things as necessary to advance the narrative. Harding approaches the story with care and grace, showing the callous racism of most of the farm families and their lack of concern for having possibly beaten two men to death.

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He also deftly and gently portrays the anguish of Tjixa and Jubeba’s families, whom no one bothers to inform of their murders. The two families, in fact, are often left in the dark about important days for the court case until a journalist (who I assume is Harding himself) informs them. Ruth Qokotha, Tjixa’s mother, is a central character in the narrative. When she learns of the murders, she leaves her job as a housekeeper for one of the farm families, moves to a township in Parys and begins to experience much more economic and emotional precarity. Throughout the case, the magistrate, attorneys and most witnesses have trouble keeping straight whose body is which, adding indignity and insult to the tragedy.

Ultimately, “These Are Not Gentle People” is a heartbreaking reflection on the complications of reconciliation and unity in a country still racked by political corruption, greed and social inequality. I won’t spoil the ending here, but Harding skillfully shows that South Africa has a long way to go toward becoming the “Rainbow Nation.” For many in the country, Paton’s “dawn of emancipation” still seems a faraway hope.

Read more in this summer’s APSRS:

Paul Farmer’s last book teaches still more about pandemics

‘Born in Blackness’ is a compelling, unforgettable read

Find all the books in our ninth African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular here.