South Africa: White men in court over coffin attack

The two accused face assault charges after video emerged online showing them forcing a black man into a coffin.

A pre-trial hearing of two South African white men accused of forcing a black man into a coffin has been adjourned until March, in a case that brought race relations in the country back into the spotlight.

The accused pair, Willem Oosthuizen and Theo Martins Jackson, were charged in November with assault and intent to cause grievous bodily harm, after a video emerged online showing them pushing Victor Mlotshwa into a coffin and threatening to burn him alive in Middelburg, about 160km east of Johannesburg.

The 20-second video, which was widely circulated on social media, shows the victim cowering inside a coffin, wailing as one man pushes a lid on his head and the other threatens to put petrol and a snake inside the coffin.

The case was adjourned to March 23.

Al Jazeera’s Tania Page, reporting from Middelburg where the pre-trial was being held on Wednesday, said the case had created widespread public interest and anger.

“Protesters from all three major political parties in South Africa have come here with banners, singing, chanting, demanding that the accused face the full force of the law,” she said.

‘Brutal racism’

The two accused have been denied bail twice, with judges describing their act as an act of “brutal racism”.

“Mlotshwa says he was kidnapped walking down a road,” Page said.

“They took him to a particular farm where they threatened to douse him with petrol; they called him derogatory names, beat him and forced him into the coffin.”

At a previous court apperance, the accused pair told judges Mlotshwa was trespassing on their farm in Middelburg and was in possession of stolen copper cables.

Back in November, Mlotshwa told reporters outside the court that he wanted justice.

“They were accusing me of trespassing. They beat me up and forced me into the coffin,” he said.

Victor Mlotshwa, centre, says he wants justice [Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]
Victor Mlotshwa, centre, says he wants justice [Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]

The degrading attack sparked demonstrations and caused outrage on social media with hundreds of South Africans condemning the men’s behaviour under the hashtag #coffinAlive.

It also laid bare racial tensions that endure in the country more than 20 years after the end of white-minority apartheid rule, as well as persisting inequalities between black and white South Africans.

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“Incidents like this show that there is still huge racism out there; a huge divide, and a total misunderstanding between race groups,” Mienke Steytler, of South Africa’s Institute of Race Relations, told Al Jazeera.

“With regards to the coffin case, these two young men do have racism ingrained in them.”

Outside the pre-trial venue on Wednesday, Tim Mashele, an official of the governing African National Congress Party, told Al Jazeera that similar accidents have been happening across the country, but the police have refused to intervene.

Part of the problem that has ignited racial tension is that the majority black population remain marginalised.

“We do not own the economy. The economy is still in the hands of the white people,” he said, adding that by giving back land to the majority black population, their dignity is also restored.    

Black people make up 80 percent of South Africa’s 54 million population, yet most of the economy remains in the hands of white people, who account for about 8 percent of the population.

Theo Martins, left, and Willem Oosthuizen first appeared in court in November [Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]
Theo Martins, left, and Willem Oosthuizen first appeared in court in November [Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies