Who is the real Henri van Breda: baby-faced innocent or monster?

In this extract from ‘The De Zalze Murders‘, journalist Julian Jansen delves into the story behind a brutal family murder and the son accused of wielding the axe

03 December 2017 - 00:01 By Julian Jansen
Murder accused Henri van Breda in the Western Cape High Court.
Murder accused Henri van Breda in the Western Cape High Court.
Image: Ruvan Boshoff

Henri's nervous, almost amused giggle in an audio recording of his conversation with the emergency services when he called them to De Zalze on the morning of the murders does not go unnoticed - or uncriticised. In light of the tragedy in which he finds himself, it sounds somewhat callous.

The ambulance service operator's floundering regarding the street names also attracts attention. Had it not been for the gravity of the emergency, her bumbling efforts to find the correct address would have verged on the comical. Moreover, the leaking of the audio clip of the emergency call, which was broadcast as an exclusive by the television news channel eNCA, leaves the Western Cape health department red-faced.

The breach of confidential information leads to an internal investigation, additional security measures, and disciplinary steps.

The full audio of Henri Van Breda's emergency call after members of his family were slaughtered.

Two days after the murders, an Australian newspaper report causes quite a stir in South Africa. Tucked away in the online version of The West Australian, an article headlined "Family left safety of Perth" claims that Henri had suspended his studies temporarily the previous year because doctors discovered a tumour in his brain. He reportedly went to live with his parents in South Africa while receiving treatment.

Family spokesman Ben Rootman is put on the spot. He confirms that Henri did undergo a brain scan at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia, but the tests were "negative" for any cyst or tumour, and merely "part of a medical examination".

Trouble about drug use

In an Australian newspaper, an "impeccable police source" confirms that a medical doctor informed the investigating team of the brain scan, and that the term "brain tumour" has been pertinently mentioned in the murder investigation. According to medical experts consulted by the media, a brain tumour, especially in the frontal lobes, may lead to impulsive behaviour.

Did Martin and Teresa van Breda perhaps know of the existence of a tumour in their son's brain? If so, they kept this information from the extended family. Right until the end.

In the meantime, new allegations start circulating about Henri and drugs. The rumours simply refuse to die down. In a spontaneous e-mail to Rapport, a resident of Perth and close acquaintance of the family claims that both in Perth and later in Melbourne, where he was at university, Henri "got into trouble about his drug use". It was also rumoured among students in Perth that Henri had been caught with dagga in his possession and was subsequently sent home.

Henri's nickname at university was reportedly "Druggie". He had allegedly also clashed with the authorities in Melbourne over his drug use. Could that be the reason he "dropped out" of his course and returned to South Africa the year before? And what was his parents' explanation to the relatives and friends who wondered why he left Australia in the middle of his academic year?

Yes, there was "great discord" in the household about Henri's drug use, said friends who had visited the family at home in the week before the murders. Furthermore, Henri was apparently "pissed off" because his parents supposedly "favoured" Rudi, and made his feelings known about this in no uncertain terms.

His mother was part of a lift club of parents from Marli's school, who took turns to drive their children daily to Somerset College. "Teresa was sometimes so exhausted from sitting up at night with Henri that his dad had to take the children to school in her place," a friend of the family recounted. "Martin knew his younger son was taking drugs. At some point he threatened to cut off his allowance. He had high expectations of his children; therefore it upset him that Henri was not at university and 'loafed about' at home."

Martin occasionally raised his son's drug use in conversations with intimate friends. "At one stage, he was very concerned when he found dagga in Henri's possession."

Henri van Breda has told his side of the story to the Cape Town High Court during his triple-axe murder trial and showed how an alleged attacker killed his brother and father with an axe.

He took Henri to task about the issue more than once. One such confrontation was reportedly witnessed in the weeks before the murders by Delores van Wyk, carer of the Van Breda family's neighbour Martin Locke.

But the friendly woman was wary of elaborating on what she had observed. "I'll probably have to testify in court. I'm already scared. I can't sleep. I saw and heard things I can't talk about now. It was of such a nature that I couldn't sleep for a long time," she said softly. What exactly she saw and heard she refused to reveal, mentioning only that the detectives had "questioned" her about it.

Obscene remarks

Teresa's close friend Michelle Barnard related earlier that Henri had always been the quiet one, the middle child. "Since childhood he hasn't easily made friends. Always apart ... in such a happy, close family.

"Something about him has always been different. For some or other reason my sons didn't play with Henri. I couldn't connect with him either. I have hundreds of photos of our children's parties. They show all the children sitting around the table. But Henri sits apart on the ground. On his own."

She recalled the time she and her family visited the Van Bredas at Thesen Islands in Knysna in 2013. Her sons went rowing with Rudi in the sea. "Henri didn't want to go along, like many times before. Rudi then told my sons that Henri was 'seriously on dagga and other hard drugs such as tik [crystal meth]'. They were so shocked about it, and too scared and ashamed to discuss it with me. If they'd told me about it at the time, I would definitely have informed Teresa. I would've warned her."

Michelle wished that Teresa had told her about Henri. "I knew everything about her marriage, and she about mine. Everything. She'd said absolutely nothing about any such problems. Maybe she kept it only to herself. Teresa would have wanted to protect Henri, perhaps tried to hide the 'shame' of his addiction to drugs. These were private matters. Who knows the heart of a mother?

Something about him has always been different. For some or other reason my sons didn't play with Henri.
Michelle Barnard

"I heard from friends that Teresa told Henri the day before the murders she wouldn't 'give him another cent'."

An altercation that took place the year before between Henri and Margaret Delport, a domestic worker on the estate, is also made public. Colleagues describe her as a "deeply religious person" who counsels drug addicts in her spare time. According to Margaret, Henri made obscene and offensive remarks to her when she ran into him at De Zalze in October. "He shouted at me: 'Hei! Jy is darem maar 'n lekker m*** met 'n lekker p*** en ek gaan jou lekker n***!" [Hey! You're a hot m*** with a hot c*** and I'm going to f*** you good!].' I thought immediately that Henri could be under the influence of drugs."

She shouted back at Henri: "You need God in your life! Go to your home!" A security guard on the estate told her afterwards: "Auntie, don't take any notice of him; he's always been a nut case."

Margaret says she heard later that his parents were also worried about him. She didn't see him again - until she caught sight of a newspaper in the week after the murders. "Then I thought, oh my King, it's that boy!"

A businesswoman from Stellenbosch tells of a commotion at a shopping centre in Welgevonden outside Stellenbosch about two weeks before the murders: "Henri and his friends turned up here in a car. He carried on like a madman in the parking area and danced to the filthiest rhyme. Then he opened his fly, swung his private parts around, and shouted to the young women what he was going to do to them. The words were the same as those he'd said to the domestic worker at De Zalze. When I read the words in the article, I recognised the rhyme."

Further persistent rumours - this time allegations that Henri used to buy drugs, including tik, regularly in the vicinity of the estate - cause the media to descend on Kreefgat, an informal settlement a stone's throw from the main entrance of De Zalze. A resident of Kreefgat, Robert Minnies, recognises Henri at once from colour photos. He often came across him, Minnies says, sometimes in the Stellenbosch Square shopping centre opposite the entrance of the golf estate, sometimes in the suburb of Jamestown behind the centre.

"One afternoon I ran into him at the traffic lights. He asked me if I could go and get him some dagga. What struck me was that he always looked as if he wasn't quite all there, in a trance, almost as if he wanted to say: 'Go on, hit me.'"

Soon it is rumoured that Henri had received treatment in a private rehabilitation centre. The family refuses to comment on this allegation. Eventually it is reported that in 2014 he did in fact spend some time in the Tijger Clinic in Loevenstein, Bellville, an exclusive mental-health treatment facility for conditions such as drug and alcohol addiction, schizophrenia, and anxiety and psychotic disorders. Henri was, like all the other patients there, assisted by a team of experts. At a cost of up to R3000 per day.

Was there any truth to the rumours that Henri used dagga and tik? Tik users tend to suffer from, inter alia, insomnia, a lack of appetite and poor personal hygiene. Among the effects of the drug are paranoia, hallucinations, mood disturbances and irritability. Would these symptoms perhaps be recorded in Henri's particulars at the centre?

The unsettling story of the 20-year-old's life was indeed starting to take shape.

Hemmed in

Only a full two years after the De Zalze axe murders would a relation divulge: "Henri was suspended by the University of Melbourne because of his drug taking." And: "Rudi, too, experimented with drugs, but it wasn't so serious. He was able to stop.

"The family had difficulties trying to get Henri into a university in South Africa afterwards - because of his suspension," the relative recounted. "Martin took his family away from here to escape from the crime. Then he took them to a country where people set little store by religion, where they - how does one put it again? - are not kerkvas [attached to the church]."

According to Alex [Boshoff], a student at Stellenbosch University, Henri often visited him at his university residence. (Their fathers were business partners at Curro Holdings, among others. The two families sometimes went fishing, diving or paragliding together.) Alex called Henri a "genius" who was very good at mathematics.

Other family friends observed that Henri's idleness occasionally got him down, given the absence of the pressure and routine of a university's academic programme. The house made him feel hemmed in, maybe claustrophobic. So, he'd drive to town in one of the family's cars, or walk to the nearby Stellenbosch Square centre or along the R44 to the Spar in Paradyskloof, to buy cigarettes.

What struck me was that he always looked as if he wasn't quite all there, in a trance, almost as if he wanted to say: 'Go on, hit me.'
Robert Minnies

At his uncle Andrè du Toit's home in the suburb of Welgelegen in Parow, Henri is reportedly depressed, lethargic and considerably thinner. He keeps such a low profile that the residents of the quiet neighbourhood are at first unaware that he is living there.

The Du Toits' domestic worker, Aysha Louw, recounts later in a telephonic interview that she and Henri were sometimes alone at home. He generally kept to his room. "He didn't come out of there when there were guests either. Henri sometimes sat on his own outside at the swimming pool, smoking. Those strong cigarettes. He would also pour himself a drink at the bar and take it to his room."

She was rather wary of him in light of all the gossip and his possible involvement in the murders. "I never let him stand behind me. Later he would usually drive off on his own in a BMW and stay away for long periods."

Contact dwindles

Almost three months after the murders, the world sees the first images of Henri since the time of the tragedy. Photos taken by a freelance photographer from a sand dune on a Sunday morning shortly before Easter show him walking along the beach at Bloubergstrand with two black dogs with his uncle Andrè and an unidentified female cousin. The smaller dog is Marli's Sasha, which she brought back to South Africa from Australia. Oscar, the labrador, belongs to Andrè.

Henri is barefoot, in shorts and a tracksuit top. He is fond of comic-strip logos on his clothes. Today it is Superman's turn.

Friends said afterwards that Andrè and his nephew often sat next to the ocean. They barely spoke: just sat on the sand, each wrapped in his own thoughts, gazing out over the water. Then the young man might light a cigarette.

A magazine publishes photos of Henri talking to a man with a donkey cart in front of his uncle's home. The man claims he sold drugs to the Van Breda boy.

Henri also pays occasional visits to relatives in Gauteng. He has few friends in South Africa, and mainly visits cousins on his mother's side of the family. In photos that the Du Toits share on social media, the lean young man stands for the most part with what seems like a kind of smirk on his face. He appears relaxed, as if he does not have a care in the world.

An in loco inspection by the Cape Town High Court took place at Henri van Breda's residence.

In time the romance between Henri and Bianca van der Westhuizen fizzles out. After the tragedy the couple still saw each other occasionally, friends said, but eventually the contact between them dwindled down to texts or WhatsApp messages. Bianca was reputedly sent overseas for a while to get over everything.

The face of the handsome dark-blond youngster gradually becomes more known to the public. People sometimes stare at him in the street. Others take photos of him or whisper that the boy who survived the axe murders is in the vicinity. Some said afterwards that it seemed as if he couldn't care less that he was recognised. "He was in a world of his own. He was anonymous, like many others in the street or restaurant."

Owing to the constant media focus on his uncle Andrè's house, Henri books into a guesthouse with a colourful garden where he stays for two weeks. He tells his hosts that he comes from Johannesburg and studies at Stellenbosch University. And that his parents live in Australia.

The image of Henri that unfolds in the media is of a quiet person, someone often on his computer, occasionally swimming in the pool, smoking a Camel cigarette or sipping on a glass of wine or whisky in the solitude of his room. Alone with his thoughts.

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