“It starts with a bang and ends with a verdict”: How Andrew Harding “embraced ambiguity” of farm murders
BBC Africa foreign correspondent Andrew Harding details the true story of a fatal beating and the deaths of two black men, Simon Jubeba and Samuel Tjixa — suspected robbers — at the hands of white farmers on the outskirts of the small Free State town of Parys in his work of literary non-fiction, These are not gentle people.
Shortlisted for the 2021 Sunday Times CNA Literary Award for non-fiction, These are not gentle people is a sombre exploration of injustice, collective guilt and societal ills.
Writing and the lockdown psyche
The initial press release for These are not gentle people was issued in May 2019, with the final copy released in September 2020.
“It's been a slow publishing process,” Johannesburg-based Harding says in his erudite British accent during our telephonic interview.
He attributes the many delays to the trial that took more than two-and-a-half-years to the judge who took a year to issue her verdict, yet when the book was completed “in April/May” it went “very quickly”.
The dates during which Harding’s book was completed coincided with that of SA’s hard lockdown, but quarantine fatigue didn’t impair his writing ability.
“No, it was fine, actually,” Harding casually responds. “I was very relieved that I had a verdict.”
Of his decision to include an epilogue, Harding says the initial plan was to have the verdict and respond to the reactions, comparing the act of writing a book containing the verdict to that of when credit rolls in a movie.
“That’s the sort of book I wrote. It starts with a bang and ends with a verdict.”
Harding says by adding an epilogue, he moved away from the accused to the deaths and howthey affected the families.
Cast of characters
These are not gentle people introduces the reader to the characters: “On the farms” (the Van der Westerhuizens and their neighbours); “In the township’ (Jubeba and Tjixa’s relatives, friends and partners); “In town” (police officers and medical professionals); and “In court” (the magistrate, judge, defence team and so on ).
Asked whether the inclusion of a dramatis personae (the characters of a play, novel, or narrative) was intentional to let the reader know this should be read as a narrative, Harding responds: “I suppose so.”
He elaborates that the cast of characters was quite big and he and his publisher (Pan Macmillan) saw it as “something useful at the beginning, something to refer back to”.
Harding initially tried to pen a novel, written in the spirit of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner's Song, described by Harding as “great works of non-fiction crime novels,” but he didn’t want to write a crime book.
Undertaking to “embrace the ambiguity” of the events of that night, he wanted to remove himself from the story, aiming to be a voice, a guide, guarding against conclusions, “letting them hopefully come naturally, sometimes not to come at all”.
Two sides of a complex story
“It’s the kind of story that immediately forces people to take sides,” Harding says of the complexity behind the events, adding that farm murders and murders across the race division are “very emotive”.
For this reason he set out to withdraw himself, with each side explaining the facts and disputed facts.
Having spent 30 years as a foreign correspondent, Harding had the luxury and time to conduct interviews with those involved, emphasising “journalism is about listening, about showing people you are trying to give them a voice, to be able to give back to everybody I interviewed, ‘This is what I've done with your words.’”
Harding employed a method of “if you’re willing to talk to me, I promise not to betray your confidence”, he explains.
The deeply personal and traumatic nature of the subject matter cannot go unmentioned.
“Some people decided it was worth talking to me,” he continues, relaying that — as an outsider — he was regarded as “someone to whom they can tell their troubles”.
He made no secret of his purpose when interviewing the people involved, and always had a Dictaphone or microphone present. Harding reiterates that people need to unburden themselves.
“People sometimes feel the need to be heard outside of their normal group of friends.”
He got to to know Tjixa’s mother, Ruth Qokotha, very well, describing her as “a very smart and determined woman who wanted her son’s story told”.
Harding says when no-one was listening or interested, “I was there.”
What’s in a name?
Of SA’s intricate race relations, Harding says he was wary of surrendering himself to a story with an ending he did not know.
He feared creating a polarised story in which politics intrude and exploit it. Writing a book with a potentially polarising nature is a fine line, he says, because the elements for writing such a story were present.
Right-wingers from outside town coming in protesting against ANC and EFF supporters and pressure on the magistrate to deny bail were factors which could have contributed to a politicised story, Harding explains.
“That’s not the story I wanted to tell. It’s a much more complicated story.”
The title of the book encapsulates the complex nature of the events.
“For the longest time the working title was Crater’s Edge,” Harding says, drawing on Jubeba and Tjixa being beaten at the edge of the Vredefort Dome.
The following observation made by Rikki van der Westhuizen (Boeta’s wife) gave rise to the title: A line popped into her head, something she’d heard before her marriage, a phrase that had often floated into her thoughts, unbidden, since then — not least when she thought of Anton, or of some other neighbours, or those 204s, those boys — men now — who would surely be haunted forever by what they’d done, whatever the outcome of the trial. These are not gentle people, she said to herself.
Harding thought to himself: “Gosh, that’s a very powerful, poetic, resonant phrase”.
He wrote it down and thought: “Hmm. Maybe that’s the title.”
“I wanted to use that hook to pull people to the book,” he says, not one which is politically or racially loaded.
This phrase also changed the way Harding considered his account as he realised ”gentle people” is applicable to the women who he spoke to and whose stories he told.
It was the female cast of characters who reached out to him, “who did want me to tell their stories”, finding in the end “I was telling the stories of women who bear the brunt of male violence”.
Accounts of domestic abuse which Ruth and Rikki chose to tell him were “detailed and personal information”.
“These are remarkable women forced into an awful situation.”
Transposing truth to paper
As Harding wasn’t present at the events which occurred that night, he had to rely on interviews (“I transcribed more than one million words”), court transcripts, WhatsApp recordings and phone messages to create a written account.
Harding employed single quotation marks in passages during which he transposed his thoughts, deciding on a “slightly more abstract approach” with his editor.
All the words on the page are attributed to someone, adding that he tried to remain true to the stories Rikki and Ruth (specifically) told him: “It felt like a more compelling way to tell their stories.”
Embracing the ambiguity of the multiple different accounts and different versions of the farmers present in the field “has a power and a truth in its own”, says Harding.
“We all remember things differently” and cannot discern who was lying deliberately.
Harding was “very careful” to pen the scenes surrounding the events, saying there are many “risks and responsibilities involved in the process”.
He had been to the locations and asked people to explain what they did, transposing the thoughts without “messing with fundamental facts or the chronology”.
Harding internalised the stories Rikki and Ruth told him — “they’re thoughts” — which added to the novelising aspect of the book.
“I tried to remain true to what they were telling me. It felt like a more compelling way to tell their stories.”
Embracing the ambiguity of the events that transpired in the field included using the different versions of the event.
“We all remember things differently,” says Harding, adding there were many risks and responsibilities in conveying the happenings of the night: he didn’t “imagine” any scenes, and relied on first-hand evidence to not mess with the fundamental facts.
‘Like two dogs on a hare’
One of the state witnesses Harding consulted to create an objective narrative thread about what happened that night was Ockert van Zyl, a neighbour of the Van der Westhuizen farm.
An anomaly in his own right, Van Zyl is described by Harding as “a loner, an outsider, with his pipe and black hat … called a ka**irboetie behind his back by the other farmers. He didn’t mind, maybe it was a badge of honour”.
Van Zyl’s description of the scene he witnessed that night embodies the sheer cruelty humankind is capable of: Weeks later, when he tried to describe the scene — the atmosphere — at the back of the white pickup, to Captain Laux having coffee with him in his lounge, Van Zyl experimented with various different expressions. It was no tea party, he offered. It was fast and furious. But the English words felt flat. Then he thought of an Afrikaans phrase, something that captured the savagery, the raw fury of that moment.
It was like two dogs on a hare.
As he approached the vehicle, Van Zyl’s first thought was that a black man was dead. He could see someone in a blue sweater slumped, motionless, against the driver’s cab. Then he heard a noise.
A loud snap, almost like a gunshot.
Van Zyl peered into the dark well of the bakkie and saw another black man, lying on his back, his jeans pulled down to expose a pair of green underpants. And now he could see what was making that snapping noise.
Van Zyl didn’t know Boeta van der Westhuizen well — Anton had introduced them once, but that was about all. Now he watched Boeta leaning over the black man and whipping his face, hard, with a doubled-up fan-belt. There was light — maybe torchlight — shining on the scene, and Van Zyl could see blood on the man’s face, small bubbles in the blood catching the light, and every time the man was hit by the belt the blood sprayed into the air, prompting Van Zyl to step back.
Dogs on a hare.
Commenting on the nature of the injuries which eventually proved to be fatal, Harding says the farmers initially had in their head that it was “a bit of a kicking” that there “initially was no suspicion they would die. Initially their hope was that this would all quietly disappear.”
By the time the murder investigation was under way, there were “two very different, much more dramatic versions of the events”, he says, varying from the horrific to the unperturbed.
An “element of exaggeration” was present, Harding adds concluding that “which side was exaggerated is impossible to know”.