The horrifying fate of a black farm labourer whose remains were found in a lion enclosure has exposed the racial divisions still lingering near the surface in South Africa, nearly a decade after the abolition of apartheid.
The militant Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) claims the death of 38-year-old Nelson Shisane is a particularly brutal example of violence against black workers by white farmers.
Friends and neighbours of his former employer, Mark Crossley, who runs a game farm near the famous Kruger National Park, say it is a symptom of the fear and isolation felt by whites in rural areas, where they face a rising toll of robbery and murder.
Mr Crossley and three of his labourers on the Engedi game farm, Simon Mathebula, Robert Mnisi and Richard Mathebula, were remanded in custody yesterday in the rural town of Phalaborwa, 200 miles from Johannesburg, charged with Mr Shisane's murder. Among the few undisputed facts in the case is that the victim's skull and part of his leg were discovered at the Mokwalo White Lion Project, 10 miles from Engedi, after his family reported him missing last weekend.
According to the police, Mr Shisane returned to Engedi around the beginning of February to collect his belongings after being sacked last year. He appears to have had several disputes with Mr Crossley, who regarded him as a "troublesome" worker.
Mr Shisane was allegedly assaulted, tied up and driven to Mokwalo, where he was thrown over the fence into a lion enclosure to be eaten alive.
"The farmer and three workers allegedly watched as a lion mauled him, before it dragged him into the bush," said Superintendent Ronel Otto. She said the owners of the project knew nothing of the incident. They breed white lions, which are paler and at more than 600lb, weigh nearly 70lb more than the more common African lion.
An Engedi farm worker said he became suspicious "when I saw two Engedi workers with blood on their shirts shortly afterwards and asked questions, but was ignored". He reported the matter to his supervisors. When police went to the lion reserve, they found only Mr Shisane's skull, part of his leg and scraps of clothing. The remains have been sent to Pretoria for forensic testing.
South Africa's Labour Minister, Membathisi Mdladlana, said he was "shocked and angry" over the incident, and sent inspectors from his department to the area. "This type of action, and the type of people who perpetrate it, have no place in a democracy such as ours," he said.
Cosatu said the case was not isolated. "While this incident is exceptionally brutal, the trade unions know that abuse of workers, 10 years after the democratic breakthrough, is still rife. Many farmers still treat their workers as badly as under apartheid," said its spokesman. Some of Mr Crossley's neighbours have a different version of events. They claim that after being dismissed, Mr Shisane had made threats against the farmer's 12-year-old son, and allegedly broke into the farmhouse while Mr Crossley, a single parent, was out drinking.
According to this account, the sacked employee was caught in the farmhouse by farm workers and beaten so severely that he died. When the farmer returned he panicked and decided to dispose of the body by dumping it at the lion sanctuary.
This version reflects the atmosphere of fear among many white farmers. The crime rate in rural areas is no lower than in South Africa's violent cities, and hundreds of white farmers have been murdered since the African National Congress took power in 1994.
Contributing to their insecurity is the threat of land seizures similar to those in neighbouring Zimbabwe. The South African government has responded ambiguously to a number of incidents in northern Kwazulu-Natal province, where black peasant farmers have moved on to white-owned land.Reuse content