White manager in truck murder was known racist

Nation wracked by crime and still coming to terms with apartheid past, shrugs off dragging death of a farm worker by his boss
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The Independent Online

A post-mortem in South Africa today will seek to determine just how gruesome was John Mosoko Rampuru's death. Was he already dead last Friday night when his white boss, Pieter Odendaal, tied his ankle to an Isuzu pick-up? Or did Mr Rampuru die as he was being dragged behind the vehicle, leaving a three-mile trail of his own guts along the streets of suburban Sasolburg?

A post-mortem in South Africa today will seek to determine just how gruesome was John Mosoko Rampuru's death. Was he already dead last Friday night when his white boss, Pieter Odendaal, tied his ankle to an Isuzu pick-up? Or did Mr Rampuru die as he was being dragged behind the vehicle, leaving a three-mile trail of his own guts along the streets of suburban Sasolburg?

Police inspector Stan Skinner, called to the wasteland where Mr Rampuru's body had been dumped, had never seen such mutilation. "The back of the head was a pulp, the buttocks had been worn away by the dragging along the asphalt. Only the lower legs of the victim's overalls were still on his body," said Insp. Skinner.

Mr Rampuru's gruesome murder in this bleak and dusty industrial city 40 miles south of Johannesburg is very similar to the murder in June 1998, in Jasper, Texas, of James Byrd, by three white racists. The world was shocked and America searched its soul for answers.

In South Africa, it is different: the most shocking thing about 37-year-old Mr Rampuru's death, six years after the end of apartheid, is that the nation is not in a state of shock.

According to his brother, John Rampuru was close to quitting as a driver at Mr Odendaal's building firm in Sasolburg. This Vaal industrial town - created in a fit of apartheid folly by a regime hoping to make South Africa self-sufficient by turning coal into oil - has no jobs these days, just dying collieries and steelworks.

So things must have been bad at Odendo Construction in Rosebery Street.

"Odendaal was not a good employer," said the victim's brother, Alfred Mphasa. "He called the staff kaffirs (niggers) and sometimes made them work until midnight."

"The pay was also a problem. John only received 800 rands (£80) a month - too little for the hours he worked. He was planning to leave but had not told Odendaal."

Mr Odendaal, a 44-year-old building contractor, has been remanded in jail on a murder charge but intends to apply for bail on Monday.

"He is the only suspect," said Insp. Skinner. "After we found the body, officers followed the trail of blood back to Rosebery Street where the Isuzu was standing. We found him there, sitting at his desk with a bottle of brandy which was three-quarters empty.

"He seemed intoxicated but was not blind drunk. We arrested him and read him his rights. We found Xanor (a tranquilliser) in his office and he said he remembered nothing from the previous hours. On Sunday when we questioned him again we found ourselves telling him what had happened," said Insp. Skinner.

In Rosebery Street, a white man at Odendo Construction was turning away visitors yesterday. Workers at a neighbouring tyre workshop had little to add about the events of last Friday. By 11.30pm, roughly the time Mr Odendaal is believed to have left in the Isuzu with Mr Rampuru tied to the bumper, they had gone home.

Charles Moledi, a 34-year-old tyre-fitter, said he knew Mr Rampuru as a "gentle man who was quiet and always 'took' Odendaal's verbal abuse without hitting back". It was a view many people confirmed of Mr Rampuru - husband of Ntjantja, and father of two sons, Success, 9, and Isaac, 13, who lived for the family's annual holiday by the sea in Durban.

Mr Moledi and other black workers at the tyre firm confirmed that Mr Odendaal was often abusive to his staff. "If he was unhappy with a job, he'd shout ' foken hond, foken kaffir' (fucking dog, fucking nigger). We could hear him from here. But I do not know that he ever hit his staff," said Mr Moledi.

The white staff at the tyre-fitters said they did not think that Odendaal was abusive to his staff. "He seemed pretty normal ... OK with people," said fitter Joe Oosthuizen, 22. "We were really shocked he could have done something as bad as that."

Racial attacks and murders continue at an alarming rate in South Africa. The police do not categorise racial crimes as such but human rights groups believe they are a sizeable proportion of South Africa's annual 24,000 murders and 28,000 attempted murders. Last week alone one farm worker had his leg shot off by his employer and another had his eye gouged out.

Mr Mphasa, 40, said that in all the years of apartheid he had never heard of any crime as vicious as this. "John understood whites. He communicated with them well. He'd spent time with them since he was young. He was a big guy because he used to be a boxer but he was the gentlest man you could imagine. He spoke Afrikaans. I cannot imagine that he somehow put a foot wrong on Friday night."

Mr Mphasa, a 40-year-old unemployed clerk, wanted to show off the family photos, as proof of his brother's good character. "The world has to be told how wrong it was for John to die," he said as he looked at pictures showing John, Ntjantja and the kids in scenes of smiles, laughs and hugs.

Today, coincidentally, South Africa opens its first four-day conference on racism in Johannesburg - 800 of the country's best brains will try to define the still-pervasive evil.

For Ntjantja, Success, Isaac and Albert it will tell them nothing they do not know already. And all that theory is unlikely to make the white workers of Sasolburg any more alert to the daily abuse endured by their black colleagues.

As for Mr Odendaal, the police fear the court may grant him bail on the grounds that he has a family and a business to run. If that happens, Mr Mphasa fears racial retribution. "We want him inside so that we can bring a civil case and get some money for the children's education. But the community is so angry, they will kill him."

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