The blood in the rainbow

South Africa goes to the polls tomorrow still haunted by the events of Easter 1998, when a black baby died in the arms of a young girl, shot by the white farmer who employed her family...
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The Independent Culture
In a tree-lined road in Petit, a village 40 miles east of Johannesburg, two very different homes occupy the same plot of land. One is a big white house, the other a grey-brown shack. Two families have lived here for a generation, side by side, ever since the mother of one began working for the mother of the other. The Steyns, who live in the house, are white smallholders. The Zwanes, in the shack, are their black servants. It is a fairly typical South African set-up. Except that, just over a year ago, 43-year-old Nico Steyn shot and killed six-month-old Angelina Zwane.

Tomorrow, 18 million South Africans will vote in the country's second multi-race elections. The African National Congress, the liberation movement turned ruling party, is sure of victory. But the run-up to the elections has brought into focus the fact that President Nelson Mandela's "rainbow nation" is a country of two worlds, exemplified by the plight of the Steyns and the Zwanes.

It was the day before Easter, Saturday 11 April 1998, and Nico Steyn flew home with his wife, Anita, from a cruise. The couple, who own a bright pink house next door to Steyn's parents' white villa, were told that there had been an attempted burglary in their home a couple of days earlier.

Steyn, who worked for a company supplying and refilling gas cylinders, decided to go for a walk around the property, which belongs to his frail father, Piet, 77, and stepmother, Eugenie, 64. It was entirely natural for Steyn to take his Bernadelli 7.65mm pistol with him. He also owned a hunting-rifle, a shotgun and an airgun - a not unusual arsenal, by South African standards, for a rural white smallholder.

While Violet Zwane, 29, prepared lunch for the Steyns, she left baby Angelina in the shack with her mother, from whom she had inherited the daily job at the white house nine years before. Her husband Isaac, a handyman, was out at work. The Zwanes' shack has three rooms, an outside loo, cardboard for insulation and no running water or electricity. It is situated in a field of long grass 200 metres from the Steyns' house, beneath electricity pylons.

As the Steyns sat down to eat, Zwane left her employers' house and walked through the long grass to a friend's shack, equidistant from her own home and the white house. Her 11-year-old niece, Francina, collected Angelina and wrapped the baby in a blanket to put on her back. Zwane, who was in her friend's shack, says this is when she heard the first of three shots in the field. "I ran back towards the property," she says, "and saw him with the gun. I shouted `Baas Nico, please do not shoot. My children are here'." But Steyn fired two more shots.

In court he said he was firing into the air - warning shots to intruders whom he thought he could see in the metre-high grass. Zwane maintains she saw him firing straight at the moving figures, and that he knew they were children because of her warning to him. "I was not surprised to hear shots because he shoots all the time, especially when he has been drinking," says Zwane. The Steyn family vehemently denies any suggestion that Nico fits the stereotype of the drunk white farmer.

The next thing Zwane remembers is a snapshot of herself standing helpless in the field as Steyn shouted, and grabbed Angelina, who had blood pouring from her head. Francina had a shoulder wound. All, including Zwane, were piled into a pick-up and driven by Steyn's younger brother, Pieter, to the ambulance station.

"All I can remember from the drive to the ambulance station is Nico shouting `don't cry, the baby is not dead'," says Zwane, composed, hands clenched, as she sits at her table in the shack. "The baby was taken away. I think she went to two hospitals. When I went to the Steyns on Sunday to ask whether they could take me to the hospital where Angelina was being treated, they said it would be better to wait until the news came by phone. So my mother and sister and I prayed a lot. We felt certain the baby would be all right because everyone had been very optimistic, and Francina was alive.

"On the 8am radio news on Monday I heard that Angelina was dead."

No one officially notified Violet Zwane of her only daughter's death but, by Tuesday, a stream of politicians were paying their respects. President Mandela, his ex-wife, and a succession of ANC ministers and militants dropped by. Zwane still has an ANC poster to show for it.

The police did not arrest Steyn for three days, and they did not search his house until the fourth. Nearly a year later, the case came to court and an Afrikaaner judge, Tjibbe Spoelstra, ruled that the death had been a "tragic freak accident". A ballistics expert told the court that one of the bullets fired into the air by Steyn had hit a power line and ricocheted before piercing Angelina's head and then Francina's shoulder. Zwane maintains that the police did not relay her statement correctly to the court, and that they excised her plea to Steyn to hold fire.

On 22 March this year, Judge Spoelstra, having found Steyn guilty of culpable homicide - an offence usually reserved for drunk drivers who kill pedestrians - sentenced him to five years' jail, suspended for three years. Outside Delmas circuit court, more than 1,000 protesters shouted "one settler, one bullet" and "kill the boer". Steyn had to be led away by police, shielded by 200 soldiers in riot gear. The security and justice ministries and the national and district public prosecutors ordered reports into the case. None has resulted in further legal action.

Steyn is in hiding, "laying puzzles and being bored all day," says his older brother, Frik. Zwane still cooks the lunch, irons the clothes and cleans the house of Piet and Eugenie, the father and stepmother of the man who shot her baby.

"This is the place where my baby died," she says, by way of explanation. "If I leave, I will be getting away from her. Her memory is here... They treat me well. My heart is very sore. I had hoped the court would punish this man. Now I feel helpless."

She has been given a day off each week and a 50 rand (pounds 5) pay rise since the killing. She now receives 300 rands a month (pounds 30) for a six-day week. The Steyns offered to pay for Angelina's funeral but, in the event, the undertakers did not charge.

Frik Steyn, a 51-year-old dairy manager, says that Violet Zwane has become "a political football" of the ANC. "We hope, when things quieten down, that we will be able to sit down with her and talk this out," he says. Meanwhile, there seems to be a tacit agreement that nothing will be said.

"Nico is truly sorry," says Frik. "He is no killer. The family is destroyed. We receive death threats all the time... In jail, even the warders threatened Nico." He adds that right-wingers have offered to buy Nico's house to help pay his legal costs.

In Petit high street, views are divided along predictable lines. A group of black youngsters say they would beat Steyn to a pulp if he dared return. "He can never come back here because people would kill him. If he'd been a black man who had killed a white baby, they would have put him away for 90 years," says one. Another says the new South Africa is a better place. "Things will improve. At least now we have the same rights as whites and quite a lot of them do not expect us to call them `baas'. People are not changing as fast as the law, but they will."

But at Petit's hair salon, with not a dreadlock in sight, a white woman with a new bouffant hairstyle swans past, wondering "what all the fuss is about". The white owner of the salon says he's a good friend of Steyn. "They stole his chickens. They stole two of his bakkies (pick-ups). They burgled him to death," he says. Asked who "they" were, he impatiently stresses: "The blacks!"

On a broader front, the case has engendered a debate in South Africa about the extent to which the legal profession is still racially biased. Indeed, if the ANC receives a two-thirds majority in tomorrow's election it could take decisive steps against the still white-dominated South African judiciary. With a 75 per cent majority vote in parliament the next government could change the constitutional stipulation that judges are appointed for life. The government could then forcibly retire some or all of the white judges appointed by the apartheid regime. It would be a popular move in some quarters because the judiciary is widely seen as reluctant to reform (it refused to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for instance). Others would see the move as dangerous, as it could result in the over-promotion of relatively inexperienced black judges.

The "Baby Angelina" case, as it has come to be known, did not, however, spark a debate about guns. For a population of about 40 million there are between 6 million and 8 million firearms, excluding those in the hands of the police or the military. The ANC's manifesto halfheartedly proposes tightening gun-licensing laws, but most South Africans do not consider it abnormal to keep a firearm at home.

For the Zwanes and the Steyns, reconciliation is now a more abstract concept than ever.