Plaasmoord: Behind the violence on South African Farms

(First two chapters. To Purchase the full e-book link to

Murders in the Midlands

If you look at the city of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe on Google Maps, you will see Pumula township off to the east, beyond Makokoba and Mpopoma, where the olive green fingers of the famously wide Bulawayo boulevards release fragments of the city into the pink of over-grazed land. Zoom down and track south to the piece of open ground behind the Second Chance grocery store and butchery. On the edge of this path-knocked piece of veld there’s a dirt road and on the other side of that, an open drain in front of a row of numbered breeze-block houses, one of which is almost entirely covered by the branches of a large avocado tree.

When Hilda Linyane bought the stand in 2007, she joined a long line of women who had worked hard to become township stand owners and landladies, a sisterhood warmly celebrated in Terence Ranger’s 2011 social history, Bulawayo Burning. Back in 1905, writes Ranger: “Some women drew on their salaries as teachers; some raised the funds to buy stands by brewing beer… some through prostitution.” Hilda Linyane raised the money by working as a domestic servant in a farmhouse in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands in South Africa, some 1 200 km away.

In March 2007, when she decided to seek employment away from home, inflation in Zimbabwe was at 66 212%, a rate that doubled the price of bread every second day. Her husband, Mhlompo, who had been working in Botswana, followed her to South Africa in July, and when both parents had secured permanent work with the Karg family on Sherwood Farm in the Midlands, they fetched their children, Priscilla and Innocent.

For decades, travel writers have exhausted their superlatives on the Midlands – where an obvious aesthetic kinship with the Scottish countryside has induced Bells to sponsor the area’s annual trout fishing tournament. The Linyane family had been more inclined to distrust than to celebrate the mist that often engulfed the valley, but they felt thankful for the security they had found there, especially in 2008 with political violence raging back home and the inflation rate at a world peacetime record of 231 150 888.87%.

On the evening of 21 July 2010, serendipity took a dreadful turn. Hilda Linyane was shot dead in the farmhouse laundry in which she had been ironing the farm owners’ clothes only hours before. Metres away in the frost-burned garden lay the bodies of Hilda’s elderly employer, Lorraine Karg, and the elderly Zulu gardener, Zakeue Mhlongo, both with their necks slit and so much of their blood in the ground that it seemed to the first people to arrive on the scene that they had hardly bled at all.

On the eve of the trial of the two men accused of the Sherwood Farm murders, Mhlompo Linyane said of his late wife: “She was a very smart woman, who built this whole house on her own. There are not many people who can do that. It was her dream to retire to Pumula South someday and if you know Ndebele you know that ‘Pumula’ means ‘a resting place’. Hilda is not resting here, however. We buried her in West Park cemetery, which is there by Makokoba.”

The Trial: Part I

When Neville Karg began his testimony in Pietermaritzburg High Court 2 on 19 March 2012 he could, for all appearances, have been addressing the driver of the milk truck that visits his dairy on Sherwood Farm each day. Granted, his children Brandon and Kita had made him take a powerful tranquiliser shortly beforehand, and as far as courtrooms go, Court 2, which is carpeted and naturally lit by a vault of hexagonal skylights, is an oddly calmative space.

The accused, Mzwandile Magubane and Nhlanhla Dladla, had been picked up by the police a week after the murders. They kept their eyes down during the farmer’s testimony. Karg did not search for theirs. Instead he drummed the wooden box he was standing in, scratched his white hair, and told the court he had been married for 36 years, that he and his deceased wife Lorraine had built up the herd on Sherwood for 12 of those, and that “we do also have a few crops to feed the cows”.

The state prosecutor in the case was Dheelan Naidoo, as softly spoken as Karg and in the habit of shaving his face right up to the level of his hairline, so that the arms of his sunglasses cross only skin on the way to his dark and immaculately groomed temples. Facing imprecisely in the direction of the witness stand, Naidoo, who is blind, asked Karg to tell the court what had transpired on 21 July 2010.

“It was an ordinary day on the farm,” Neville began. “We had just begun supper when I received a telephone call from my son Brandon, saying the manager had reported a fire on Sherwood amongst the new hay bales. I told Brandon I would go to investigate and then called him back and asked him to send more workers to help extinguish the fire. I also phoned my wife and asked her to bring workers from Sherwood. A few minutes later I phoned back to ask her to bring bush knives so the beaters could cut branches to fight the fire.
“My wife never arrived. I told Brandon I’d go back to see what the problem was. I entered the yard and parked the bakkie [pickup truck] next to the house. I opened the laundry door and found two people lying there. One was motionless, and the other indicated I should leave because there were many people in the house.”

The still figure was Hilda Linyane, already dead at this point. The person who waved the farmer away was Bonginkosi Mhlongo, Zakeue’s son, who worked in the farm dairy. When Neville returned with the police they searched the yard and found the car with the doors open. “Next to the tree next to the car I found my wife’s body. She had been dead for a while,” he said.
The forensic pathologist who conducted the post-mortem on Lorraine Karg told the court that the large laceration from centre to right of her neck had severed the carotid artery and jugular vein. He estimated that she had bled to death over a period of 15 to 20 minutes.

The suspects sitting in the dock seemed physically incapable of causing such damage – too little by far, their skinniness accentuated by messy uncut hair. They seemed unsuited to physical labour generally, and yet both had worked on Sherwood Farm.
Accused number one, Magubane, had done some painting in 2006 but had left because he did not have an ID book, “and everyone on the farm”, said Karg, “has to have an identification book”. Magubane’s state-appointed attorney, the first of them at any rate, put it to the farmer that Magubane had in fact left because he was paid only R600 a month.
“We don’t pay less than minimum wage,” Karg shot back. “All employees are registered and put on the books, so the information is verifiable.”

Naidoo later said that in cases where the complainant is a white farm owner and the accused a black farmworker – when there has been a violent attack – it is not uncommon for the defense to try and depict the farmer as a brute. The substrate for such a defense is cheaply available in South Africa. Human rights defenders like the Surplus People Project and Human Rights Watch regularly release biblical reports in which South Africa’s white commercial farmers are indicted for an array of abuses, including underpayment and physical violence.

Magubane’s attorney chose not to probe the labour conditions on Sherwood Farm, however, perhaps because the softly-spoken dairyman before the court did not fit the caricature of the exacting farmer. Or possibly she had put herself in the judge’s chair with its view of the farm-owning Kargs sitting next to the farm-working Linyanes and Mhlompos, all of whom held hands when the forensic pathologist had delivered his grisly testimony.

Accused number two, Nhlanhla Dladla, had been employed on Sherwood Farm at the time the murders took place.
“We taught him to drive, we taught him plumbing,” said Karg. “I thought him a star worker and so he was promoted through the ranks until he ended up driving one of the biggest tractors.” Naidoo asked the farmer about a third suspect, Colin Mapalala, who was not present in court. Karg explained that Mapalala had also been a tractor driver on Sherwood and that he had considered him a “good worker” too, until he crashed three times in short succession.

“We thought he was on drugs so our disciplinary committee – all disciplinary issues are settled by a committee of senior farm workers – downgraded him to general labourer. When this happened he disappeared,” he said.

“Where is Mapalala now?” I whispered to a thirty-something man who wore a black suit and slid endlessly up and down his gallery pew like a bean on an abacus wire, explaining aspects of the criminal justice system to the families of the deceased.
“Dead. Shot in police custody going for a handgun. I’ll tell you about this later. For now you’ll want to pay attention, something interesting is happening here.”

Neville Karg stepped down and was replaced by a black male in his 20s who bore a striking resemblance to Magubane, accused number one.

“This is the state witness,” said the court oracle, Brian Jones. “See that guy over there?” He nodded in the direction of the bar table at a thick-set white male in his 50s with a golden white moustache. “That’s Colonel Piet Scott, the head of the Pietermaritzburg Organised Crime Unit. He’s here to see whether his 204 sings.”

In South Africa’s police parlance state witnesses are called 204s – section 204 witnesses – and the problem with this particular 204 was his relationship with the accused. Velaphi Magubane was Mzwandile Magubane’s kid brother, and Scott was in court because he was concerned that, for the first time in his 31-year-long career, a 204 was about to flip on him.

“Yes it’s true that I made a statement,” Velaphi Magubane told the court. “We were fetched by police officers at 2am. There were four of us, one of who is now dead. We were taken into the room where he was lying dead, still handcuffed, and the policemen there told us if we didn’t confess we would end up like him. Then we were taken and beaten, and what we told was not the truth.”

Scott sprang up at this point and left the court by the side door. The normally inscrutable Naidoo stammered a little and asked for a day “in which to reassess the situation”, and by then Scott was outside re-arresting Velaphi Magubane in front of a group of amused attorneys.

“Possession of a firearm,” he said to the investigating officer, indicating what the new charge should be, and the man who had just minutes before traded his get-out-of-jail-free card to protect family was led away, trailing after the words: “We warned you not to with us. Didn’t we warn you?”

The likely nature of the defense was becoming clear – yes we confessed, yes we pointed out the crime scene to police officers, but it was because we were beaten, everything we said was lies.

When Mzwandile Magubane was shooed back down to the holding cells at the end of day one, he flashed Neville Karg a winning smile. To the children of Hilda Linyane and Zakeue Mhlongo – Priscilla and Innocent, Sam and Bonginkosi – he whispered: “See you in Africa,” which made Priscilla cry. Innocent Linyane put his arms on the pew in front of him and began knocking his forehead repeatedly against his wrist bones.

“Poor guy,” said Jones. “He doesn’t know it yet but the 204 was the only thing holding accused number two to the murders. Tomorrow Nhlanhla Dladla walks.”

(To Purchase the full e-book link to