On a gentle winter afternoon in July last year, Pieter Orffer, his wife Lida, their two children and their maid died in one of the most gruesome and inexplicable murders ever committed in South Africa. Two suspects were quickly arrested and, within 24 hours, one of them was dead, the other shot in the head. This time, the police were suspected of murder.
Stellenbosch, a small, prosperous university town - the seat of Afrikaner learning -in the wine region 20 miles from Cape Town, was traumatised. Less than four months had passed since the elections that finally ended apartheid, and already the community was being put through its most severe test. Was racial harmony possible in South Africa, or did the legacy of hatred simply run too deep?
By the time I visited the Orffer home, a few weeks after the bloody murders, a group of British students were living there; they had been brought over by the cricketer Omar Henry to teach the game to underprivileged kids. I asked one of the students, a fresh-faced youngster who'd just pulled up on his mountain bike, if he was bothered by living in this house of death.
"It has nothing to do with me," he said, almost flippantly, before adding: "If this was Gloucester and the home of Frederick West, then I couldn't live in it."
Even now, it is hard to feel threatened in idyllic Stellenbosch. Even the street names conjure up visions of goodness and health. The Orffer family, for instance, lived at 2 Saffron Lane, The Orchard. Violent crime was something that happened "out there", never here.
Pieter worked for a liquor company until he was made redundant last year, and Lida taught at a local high school. Both were good-looking and in their early thirties. They had a daughter, Eulalia (four), and a son, Jean (six), who almost died at birth and was left partially deaf. On weekends they waterskied. Pieter also canoed, and Lida took netball practice at school.
"They were so strong, you wouldn't expect this to happen to them," says Laetitia Botha, a close friend and colleague of Lida's. "You always think of old people and children as vulnerable, but not them."
After losing his job, Pieter began doing carpentry work in his garage. Early in the year he mentioned to his daughter's nursery school teacher that he was looking for an assistant. She said her maid, Dorothy, had a brother who was unemployed. She warned Pieter, however, that he was an ex-convict. Pieter didn't mind.
Andile Sydney Mkhosana is 32, exactly the same age as Pieter was when he died. A father of three, a sometime gardener, painter and drifter, he had spent eight months in jail for violent assault when, in April, he was released on parole. Two months later, he was given his freedom under the post-election amnesty.
"Pieter was ready to give me a second chance," Mkhosana told me after the Saffron Lane killings. "I owe him everything. We worked well together. I used to eat breakfast with them. I drove the children to school. They gave me good clothes to wear. They used to let me drive the pick-up on my own. Pieter called me Seaboy. He trusted me."
Late on the afternoon of Saturday 30 July, the police cordoned off 2 Saffron Lane. They had been called by Lida's brother, Will Theunissen, who had discovered the horrific scene inside. The news spread quickly. Stellenbosch is a small town, given to rumour, and the Orffer house, at a major crossroad opposite a shopping centre, is hard to miss. But even though the murder spree took place over five hours on a busy Friday afternoon, no one had noticed anything amiss. In particular, no one noticed that the curtains were drawn.
The first radio bulletin reported the murders as a family suicide. It was common knowledge that, a month earlier, Pieter was so depressed about his lack of a job that he'd threatened to take his own life. The police were called in.
"It was just a cry for help," Laetitia Botha believes. "I don't think he was serious about it. They loved life too much. But the police took his gun. A few weeks later he could've used it."
The bodies of Pieter, Eulalia and Jean, as well as the coloured maid, Sus Jacobs, were neatly lined up next to each other on the living room floor, covered in blankets and cushions. All four had died from numerous axe blows to the head. Lida was lying on her bed, her face covered with a pillow, her pants around her ankles. She had been raped and then axed. The murderers had shown no mercy.
"There were policemen standing outside with tears in their eyes," says Terry Nel of Die Burger, Cape Town's Afrikaans daily. "They said they'd never seen anything so gruesome."
The police found the murder weapon in the garage. The family's blue pick- up was missing. The prime suspect for the murder was Pieter's assistant, Andile Mkhosana.
In late October, I visit Mkhosana in Pollsmoor, the prison where Nelson Mandela lived. He no longer resembles the man I've seen in news-paper photos. He's emaciated, his left eyelid is sewn down, he walks stiffly and moves his jaw and neck with difficulty. When he smiles, he brings his hand up to cover his mouth in a disarming gesture. He fills in the pieces of what happened on the morning of 29 July.
Pieter Orffer left home early to run various errands. He was on his way to see possible buyers of his pick-up and he had to organise things for his son, who was going to a school for the deaf from the following week.
While they were out, Amos Nxara, a 23-year-old unemployed former taxi driver, arrived at the Orffer's house. The two men had got to know each other in prison and, like Mkhosana, Nxara had been released under the amnesty. He was looking for work.
Mkhosana said there was none at the Orffers. They sat in the garage and began talking. Nxara spoke about how he was struggling to make ends meet.
"Then he said we should do this thing," Mkhosana tells me suddenly.
"Do you mean, kill the Orffers?" I ask.
The maid, Sus Jacobs, left the house at midday to fetch Eulalia from nursery school. When they returned, Nxara killed them both. Pieter and his son arrived back between three and four hours later. Mkhosana recalls what happened after they walked through the front door:
"Pieter said to me, `I treated you like a brother, why are you doing this?' So I said to him: `I am going to kill you.'"
Nxara, whom Mkhosana always refers to as "the accused", restrained the Orffers' son, Jean. When he saw his father roll over dead, the boy sat down submissively. Mkhosana brought the axe down on him too. Then he dragged the four bodies to the living room and covered them so they were not visible from the front door. He arranged several rugs to hide the blood stains.
When Lida Orffer returned from netball practice after 5pm, she immediately saw that something terrible had happened and ran to her bedroom, locking the door behind her. The windows were barred and she couldn't find the key to the porch. The killers kicked in the bedroom door. Of all the victims, says Mkhosana, she put up the most vigorous struggle. If he shows any remorse now, it is for this final killing.
"The accused [Nxara] started to rape her and I asked him: `Why are you doing this? You have a girlfriend already.' He said that he'd never tasted a white woman before. She pleaded with me not to kill her. She said she wouldn't say anything and we could get away. I wanted to let her live. But while I was looking out the curtains of the living room, I heard him hitting her - three times, I think."
The police found Mkhosana on the Sunday. He was attending a church service in Bloekombos squatter camp, about 12 miles away, where his sister Dorothy and his mother lived. Ten days later the police arrested Nxara. Within 24 hours, Nxara would be dead and Mkhosana would be lying in a hospital bed with one eye shot out.
Stellenbosch was stunned by the murders. People fitted bars to their windows and called in security firms. Racial tensions rose. As a white housewife put it: "You looked at your maid and your gardener and suddenly wondered: Can I trust them? They could just turn on me."
Mkhosana, I discovered, had worked for several people in town, as a painter, a gardener and a general factotum. He had been making a tele-vision cabinet for Laetitia Botha at the time he butchered her friends, and several times before that he had been alone with her and her two children. "He could have killed me," she says.
Although the murders did not seem to have any political motivation, Afrikaners felt particularly shocked and vulnerable. Lida Orffer's grandfather was Uys Krige, one of the most famous poets in Afrikaans literature. And it was the kind of liberal Afrikaners who live in Stellenbosch who had instigated the reform process that was completed by the election in April last year of a government led by the ANC.
In an emotive and somewhat racist letter to Die Burger, Lina Spies, professor of Afrikaans at the university, expressed what others dared not say. She wrote that the Orffers had gone out of their way to give Mkhosana, a black man and a convicted criminal, a second chance. "Their courage cost them their lives," she concluded. "The reward for trust was rape and an axe."
Nearby, in the black township of Kayamandi, residents were reeling from the same feelings as their bosses in Stellenbosch.
"What they [Mkhosana and Nxara] did to the Orffers, they could just as easily have done to us," said Doreen Hani, a town councillor and cousin of Chris Hani, the Communist Party chief assassinated in 1993. "We have daughters and children, too."
Hani wrote a public letter expressing her sympathy with the Orffer family, and called on all women in town to come together and talk, if not for themselves, then for the sake of their child-ren. The whites declined.
But several days later, when the police brought Mkhosana to town to visit the scene of the crime, the reaction among most whites was totally unexpected. Instead of hatred and anger, they showed pity. Mkhosana wasn't a stranger to them, a faceless black man who'd crept through a window at night. He was someone they'd known and employed. At first, Laetitia Botha couldn't believe that he had done it.
In trying to rationalise what had happened, they asked themselves whether a man who'd led a normal life could have committed such an atrocious act. Was Mkhosana himself a victim of apartheid? Who was really to blame: the man who'd held the weapon, or the system that had made him into what he was? Guilt dis-sipated their anger.
Few of them knew the details of Mkhosana's life, but they could have guessed. His background isn't untypical of hundreds of thousands of others. Born in the Eastern Cape in 1962, he lived with his mother and three siblings. His father, who worked on a farm near Kimberley, was killed by fellow workers in a fight in 1985. Mkhosana had been a troublemaker at school, stabbing fellow students with his pen. "I aimed for behind the ear," he says, "because that's where it was easiest to hurt them."
Although he was a bright pupil, he left school early, shortly after the Soweto riots in 1976. He drifted, doing odd jobs along the way, and spent time in jail. He followed his sister to Stellenbosch in 1991, and had never had a permanent job before he joined the Orffers.
When I asked Mkhosana why he killed a family he cared for, he answered, "The God's truth is, I don't know what happened to me. The devil was in me. Pieter gave me everything. I still see his face in my head. I have to live with that. He doesn't. It's a scandal, a real scandal."
There was no immediately apparent motive for the murders. Nothing had been stolen from the Saffron Lane house, not even a bottle of wine. People suspected there had been an argument between boss and employee. Perhaps Mkhosana and Nxara had been drinking or smoking marijuana, and had acted in a fit of madness. What people didn't want to consider was the motive they feared most: hatred.
According to Roland Graser, head of criminology at Durban-Westville University, a deep-seated bitterness could have caused Mkhosana to kill a white man, even someone he cared for. Last year, Graser's own parents were stabbed while they lay in their beds in Cape Town. The motive was race.
"For a long time whites have seen blacks as inferior," Graser explains. "By the same token, blacks have resented them for it. There's a lot of hatred and misunderstanding. Someone who doesn't have a high value of life for himself doesn't have a high value of life for others."
What should have been an open-and-shut case did not end with the arrest of Mkhosana and Nxara. Before the two had even been charged, the normally slow wheels of justice were overtaken by events.
On the same day that Nxara was arrested, Mkhosana was transferred from Pollsmoor to the Cape Town suburb of Bellville, where the police murder and robbery unit has its offices. Very early the next morning, the two prisoners were taken from their respective cells and driven away by the unit chief, Des Segal, and detectives "Snakes" Huyshamer and Andries Bosman. Less than an hour later, both prisoners had been shot in the head.
The police told reporters that the detectives were taking the two accused to point out houses which might contain weapons in Lwandle township, 18 miles from Stellenbosch. Mkhosana, they said, had a penknife, which he'd somehow smuggled into prison. As they approached Lwandle, he reached over the seat, grabbed hold of Bosman and cut his chest. Nxara, meanwhile, grabbed Bosman's gun and pointed it at Segal. A shoot-out followed, in which both of the accused men were shot.
No sooner had the news been reported, however, than questions arose and rumours took wing. Why were two highly publicised and dangerous criminals, accused of such brutal killings, being driven around at that time of the morning? Why were they not properly searched beforehand? Why was the head of the unit with them? How could two slight men, chained together, have attacked three large policemen?
Mkhosana relates a completely different version of events. At 3am on 10 August, he recalls, he was removed from his cell. The detectives didn't explain where they were taking him. Mkhosana and Nxara were manacled together by an arm and an ankle each. Somewhere on the way to Muizenborg, which lies in the opposite direction to Lwandle, the mini-van stopped. Mkhosana says he could see no lights and no other traffic. "There was fuck all," he says.
The driver asked his two colleagues if it was all right to stop there, and they answered yes. Mkhosana says one of the detectives got out and, pointing his gun at him and Nxara, told them to get out too. Mkhosana refused because he knew they wanted to kill them. He was then, he believes, shot twice in the head and kicked. He woke up in hospital.
"It was a miracle that I lived," Mkhosana told me. "The police were standing by my bed in the hospital. They looked surprised. The doctor said he couldn't believe I was alive. I told him, `You can kill me now if you want to.'"
Under South African law, Mkhosana's version of events - allegations made by a prisoner awaiting trial - cannot be reported. However, there is powerful circumstantial evidence to indicate that his words are more than the rant- ings of a killer trying to save his skin.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the allegations are true," says Piers Pigou, a member of the Independent Board of Inquiry, a body which investigates police misconduct, particularly the torture and murder of prisoners in custody.
"This is a common accusation we hear," says Pigou. "A prisoner is taken around to various locations that have to do with the crime. During the course of the trip he is beaten up and told to run. Then he gets shot in the back."
At the scene of the Saffron Lane killings, the reporter Terry Nel says she had heard a policeman conjecture that the accused would never make it to trial. "If the suspects are caught," he said, "I wouldn't be surprised if they don't live."
Nel, who has followed the Orffer case from the beginning, later witnessed something else which made her question the police version of events. At about 3.30pm on 10 August, scarcely ten hours after the alleged escape attempt and the killing of Nxara, Nel tried to get a comment from the trio of detectives. She went to the Cape Town home of Andries Bosman, the policeman who'd been wounded in the upper chest and had received 14 stitches. Although it was a Wednesday, there was a braai - a barbecue -in progress, and celebration in the air.
"Everyone was there," Nel recalls. "All the big shots. They were drinking brandy and Coke. They even poured one for me, but they wouldn't talk about the shootings."
Later, I found corroboration for Mkhosana's allegations from a most unlikely source: two Afrikaner friends of the police in Stellenbosch, Jan and Hennie (not their real names).
Late on the Sunday that Mkhosana had been caught, Jan came into contact with a group of policemen from the Bellville murder and robbery unit. They were both elated and disconcerted because, while they had extracted a full confession from Mkhosana - including the identity of his co-murderer - they felt powerless with what they knew.
The Saffron Lane case would take a long time to reach court and, there being a moratorium on capital punishment, they knew the accused would not get the death penalty. The police began talking about killing Nxara themselves. (Curiously, according to Jan, they threatened only to beat up Mkhosana, not to kill him, possibly because Nxara was the one who killed the Orffer daughter and mother.)
At this stage, says Jan, the plan was for the police to transport the accused somewhere, leaving the back door of the van unlocked. They would turn off on to a deserted road and stop. The accused would find the door open and try to escape. Behind would be a second police car, whose occupants would shoot the accused.
"They had been drinking a lot, but they knew how to hold their liquor," says Jan. "They were going back afterwards to interrogate him some more. They argued among themselves who would get to shoot the accused. They all wanted a chance. They weren't joking, either. I took them very seriously. I told Hennie that the accused would be dead in ten days."
Hennie takes up the story. A day after the shootings, two policemen told him that detective Bosman had cut his own chest with the penknife after the incident in order to make it look like he had been attacked. A third policeman boasted: "The kaffir [Nxara] got cocky, so they took him out."
I ask Hennie and Jan why they have decided to blow the whistle on their friends. Jan answers: "What bothers me most was how smug they were about what they were going to do. The police shouldn't be like that."
Most other white people I spoke to seemed to disagree. The consensus was that Mkhosana and Nxara had got what they deserved. They had perpetrated an unspeakable crime. There was no doubt about their guilt. Their court case would drag out, probably for more than a year, and people would slowly forget the horror that took place in Saffron Lane. It was better, then, that the police carry out justice swiftly, even if it wasn't entirely just.
The events leading up to 10 August probably would have drowned in a sea of lies, red tape, overcrowded prisons and overworked courtrooms, except that Mkhosana lived to question the events. No one counted on that. Now he waits for his trial, frail, shy and a bit repentant: he swears that he's turned to God. He is also totally resigned to his fate. He tells me: "I could get death. [No one has bothered to explain to him that there is a moratorium on executions.] I could get life, or maybe the police will take me on a ride and shoot me again."Reuse content