Two white men have been convicted of attempted murder after they forced a black South African farmworker into a coffin, which they then threatened to set alight.
A video of the incident went viral last year under the hashtag #coffinassault, igniting a discussion about racism in South Africa, and led to victim Victor Mlotshwa coming forward to police.
The two accused, Willem Oosthuizen and Theo Jackson, had argued that they only intended to scare Mlotshwa, claiming he had threatened their families and committed theft.
But Judge Segopotje Sheila Mphahlele found both men guilty on counts of kidnapping, assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, intimidation and attempted murder. Jackson was also convicted of one count of obstructing the administration of justice for later burning the coffin used in the incident.
The two men were also found guilty of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm against a second complainant, Delton Sithole.
Oosthuizen was cleared of one count of unlawful possession of a firearm.
The judge set a date of October 23 for sentencing. She extended bail for Oosthuizen and Jackson, who are both married with young children, after dismissing the state prosecutor’s concerns that their safety could be at risk and that they might not return to court.
Mphahlele added that the community should be happy with the verdicts.
Before announcing her decision, in a sitting of the high court at Middelburg Magistrates’ Court, Mphahlele recounted testimony given by several witnesses and the accused.
Mphahlele said Mlotshwa had testified that he was hitchhiking on a road when he was pursued by the men and forced to get into one of their vehicles. When he refused to cooperate, he was assaulted, Mlotshwa said.
The men drove him to a secluded spot where they ordered him to climb into a coffin in a deep ditch. He was warned that if he tried to run away, they would shoot him.
Mlotshwa said he was beaten when he tried to resist climbing into the coffin, so eventually cooperated. He then heard one of the accused say they must pour petrol into the coffin. At that stage he was in severe pain, shivering and pleading with accused to spare his life.
He thought they were going to kill him, he said. He became very scared when he noticed the men had petrol. “At one stage, Mlotshwa was even asked if he wanted to die fast or slowly,” said the judge.
He eventually realized that no-one was forcing him back into the coffin, scrambled out and ran away as fast as he could. He said he suffered injuries to his face, shoulder, back, arm and leg but did not seek medical attention. He has a visible scar on his left leg as a result of his injuries, the court heard.
Defendants denied wrongdoing
Recounting the defendants’ testimony, the judge said Oosthuizen claimed that after they stopped him, Mlotshwa had been arrogant and was threatening to damage their crops and kill their wives and children. He had been carrying a black bag, which Jackson said contained copper cables.
Oosthuizen testified that they never intended to kill Mlotshwa, and only wanted to scare him off and “deter him from carrying out his earlier threats,” the judge recounted.
Oosthuizen claimed they told Mlotshwa to get out of the coffin at the end of the incident and that Mlotshwa was able to walk free.
Jackson’s testimony, as recounted by the judge, supported that of Oosthuizen.
They took videos and a photo so that Mlotshwa could not later accuse them of assaulting him and to show that he admitted stealing the cable, Jackson said. The whole incident took 10 to 15 minutes and Mlotshwa was in the coffin no longer than 5 minutes, he said.
In October, his employer instructed him to get rid of the coffin because they would get in trouble for it, so he burned it, Jackson said.
Neither defendant considered their actions to be wrong. Jackson said his wife had ordered him to delete the video from his cellphone because she didn’t want their children to see it.