South Africa

'Racist' farmers sentenced to prison over coffin case

Two men who shoved black victim into coffin and threatened to set him on fire sentenced to more than 10 years in jail.

Middelburg, South Africa - A court in South Africa has sentenced two white farmers found guilty of kidnapping, assault and intent to do grievous bodily harm to more than 10 years in prison after they shoved a black man in a coffin and threatened to set him ablaze.

Willem Oosthuizen and Theo Jackson were sentenced to 11 and 14 years in jail, respectively.

Sentencing proceedings, which had been postponed since Monday, were heard at the Middelburg Magistrate's Court on Friday.

The court fell silent as the heavy sentences were handed out. Family members of Oosthuizen and Jackson sat together in court and cried.

The case has shocked the country and seen an outpouring of support for the victim, Victor Mlothshwa. The incident, which took place in August 2016, caught the country's attention after mobile phone footage was widely watched online.

Victor Mlothshwa's case has raised the issue of racism in South Africa [File: Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]

Judge Segopotje Mphahlele said the most appalling thing done by the white men was to put a living person inside a coffin.

"The conduct of the accused fueled racial division ... in a society of increasing racial intolerance" Mphahlele said.

There were buoyant scenes outside the Middleburg Magistrates Court as news of the sentencing was announced.

About 500 people, many in party regalia of the ANC and the Democratic Party, could be seen waving party flags and holding up banners that called for an end to racism.

A mobile stage, sponsored by the ANC, was set up outside the court as local and regional leaders took turns to address the hundreds of the supporters who had come from surrounding areas to show support for Mlotshwa. 

About 30 white farmers also came to show solidarity with the accused. They stood adjacent to the entrance of the court looking on, mostly in silence, as the crowd danced, sang, and shouted slogans.

Defence lawyers representing the accused men earlier asked the court to be lenient, alleging Mlothshwa was riding a wave of public outrage ever since the video of him being assaulted in a coffin went viral in 2016.

Though they argued the men were sorry for the consequences of their actions, the prosecution argued the accused had shown little remorse.

The final judgement is expected to have far-reaching consequences for race relations in the country.

Oosthuizen and Jackson shoved Mlothshwa into a coffin in August 2016 [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

In the video, Oosthuizen and Jackson can be seen trying to close the lid of the coffin with their boots as Mlothshwa begged for his life.

The men can be heard hurling abuse and threatening to douse him with petrol and set him on fire.

The assault took place on a farm close to Komati power station in Middelburg, a northeastern town, and spurred national outrage, prompting recollections of the country's racist past.

Carel Taute, Jackson's lawyer, said he believed the sentencing was too harsh.

"The whole case is strange - even the fact that it was taken to the High Court when there was no murder," he told Al Jazeera. "Then we had media attention almost the entire time. The media attention, to me, seemed to fuel the tenor of the trial.

"I find it ironic that the judge said that the judgement had to build relations within the community. I am afraid this will do the opposite."

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In her judgement on August 25, Mphahlele found the white farmers guilty of kidnapping and assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm to Mlotshwa.

Oosthuizen and Jackson pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder, saying they merely wanted to scare Mlotshwa, who they accused of cable theft.

Mlotshwa denied any wrongdoing and said he was picked up by the two men while taking a shortcut towards Middelburg.

Deep-seated racial inequality persists in South Africa two decades after the end of white-minority apartheid rule.

Zaakirah Vadi, a communications officer for the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, told Al Jazeera the sentencing had to be seen within the larger context of racial and social dynamics in South Africa.

"This ruling sends a strong message that there is no place for blatant racism in South Africa and we hope that it serves as a deterrent to others," Vadi said.

The Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa praised the jail terms in a tweet.

"We welcome the sentences handed down on the #CoffinAssault culprits who were respectively sentenced to 11 & 14 years direct imprisonment."

The minister described the prison terms as "a stern warning" that "illustrates that we will not tolerate racism in our society".

South Africa: Coffin-attack trial adjourned until March

Source: Al Jazeera News