South Africa: 25 Lives in the Balance. Controversial trial could further erode black trust in judicial system. WAS IT PREMEDITATED MURDER?
UPINGTON, SOUTH AFRICA
EARLY every weekday morning, an unlikely parade winds its way through this one-horse town on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. It's a long convoy of police vans crammed with 26 black prisoners singing freedom songs at the top of their lungs. The procession passes the shops that won't employ blacks, the restaurants that won't serve them, and the swimming pools that won't allow them entry. It stops at a small white courthouse.Skip to next paragraph
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There the prisoners pile out - still singing - and are marched into a courtroom to stand trial for the killing of a policeman. Twenty-five of them, in fact, have been found guilty of murder for associating themselves with a mob in 1985 that clubbed the policeman to death, then set his body ablaze.
Although most didn't participate in the actual killing, they were convicted of having ``common purpose'' with the murderers. It's a concept human rights lawyers and other experts contend is extreme. They argue that, far from acting in an organized fashion, the accused exploded in a moment of anger - the bottled-up frustration of living in a place where apartheid, with all its deprivation and humiliation, still is strictly enforced.
And the stakes couldn't be higher: If the defendants' lawyers don't succeed in convincing the court, the Upington 25 - as they are known - all could go to the gallows. Moreover, legal experts fear the trial's magnitude could further erode black trust in a judicial system increasingly seen as politically biased.
``How can 25 people kill one person?'' asks the Rev. Aubrey Bierkus, a minister from a nearby colored (mixed-race) township. ``It's impossible. Most of them just threw stones at his house.''
Until 1985, Upington (pop. 60,000) pretty much escaped the periodic bouts of black unrest that convulsed other parts of the country. This, despite living conditions in Paballelo, Upington's black township. Few of the matchbox-sized houses have electricity; raw sewage runs in the dirt roads. Only nine of 10,000 residents have a college education. About 7 percent have high school diplomas.
Unemployment is figured at about 30 percent - twice the official rate for blacks in other townships. That's because whites in town typically prefer to hire coloreds. (Having a job doesn't mean extra perks, however. Come noon, when the heat rises in shimmery, undulating waves off the street, black workers - who aren't allowed in restaurants - crouch along the curb, eating their lunches.)
The work situation is so bad ``I don't even bother looking for a job anymore,'' says a young man in burgundy running shorts who graduated from high school last year. ``Whites don't want you if you're from the township.''
AGAINST this backdrop, things started to heat up in November 1985. (Black areas in the rest of South Africa had been blowing up since 1984.) On Nov. 13, about 3,000 people gathered at a dusty, rock-strewn soccer field in Paballelo, ostensibly to discuss problems of high rents for housing. The police moved in, gave them 10 minutes to disperse, and then fired tear-gas into the crowd.
Many on the field streamed down Pilane Street to escape the gas; some stopped in front of No. 405, a tiny white house with orange trim owned by policeman Lucas Sethwala. When they started stoning the house, Mr. Sethwala fired into the group with a rifle, wounding a small child. He then tried to escape, but was caught by a member of the group and hit over the head with the butt of his rifle. His body was assaulted and set afire.
The court ruled that only four of the Upington 25 actually perpetrated Sethwala's murder. By throwing stones, however, the others ``got him out of his home with the intent to kill him,'' maintains Terrance van Rensburg, the deputy attorney general for northern Cape Province. ``Therein lies the common purpose with those who did the killing.''