Tuesday, June 16th, the anniversary of the Soweto riots. The packed courtroom, heavily guarded by security police wheezed with apprehension. Some of the people present were stiff with fear, others had their heads raised high, displaying talent for thoughts of violent retribution.
In the dock, their eyes protruding wildly, glancing around nervously, soundlessly stood the three young accused. Their foreheads glistening with sweat, fists clenched tightly, they waited for the White magistrate, the custodian and keeper of Apartheid law to appear. Amidst the solemnity of the warm morning and the blue skies outside, there was low chatter and whimpering from the families and friends who had arrived very early and managed to find a seat. Those wanting to attend the trial had lined the stairs leading into the courthouse building, along the corridor to the courtroom itself. Many of them were rudely turned away by policemen, most of whom were carrying loaded automatic weapons.
Weeks before the trial, the press, on both sides of the political spectrum, had given it much editorial play. The right-wing newspapers, usually pro- Nationalist government, played heavy on the premise that this trial would prove Apartheid a sound policy, the only means of keeping Blacks happy and the Whites in control. The left-wing newspapers wrote that it showed the wickedness of Apartheid and that no decent nation could implement such racist policies.
Among those attending the trial were the foreign press corps and local journalists. Some whom the government considered ‘antigovernment’, were denied entrance without explanation. Photographers and camera crews were barred from entering the courtroom. Only police photographers had the privilege and with it made a nuisance of themselves photographing everyone present. Their intention; to update their files, record faces for future investigation, carry out further harassment to ‘reveal’ the individual’s political ideology.
By eleven a.m., the courtroom doused itself to a trickle of sickly coughing, then fell silent as the inside of a morgue. The accused stared straight, as though permanently paralyzed. Now and again, they would break their posture to glance at the people in court.
“Will the court please rise.”
There were shuffles to comply with the order, to honour the entering magistrate. Some of the elderly Blacks, not fast enough to rise remained seated, provoking ugly frowns from the police. The White magistrate of Afrikaner extraction, cumbersome in his actions, took to his chair, heaving as though he had forgotten to breath.
“You, Nelson Matshala, Moses Moteba, and Alfred Tambana, are on trial for the most violent and brutal murder, the most violent that I have ever come across in my twenty years as a magistrate. The cold-blooded murder of Professor David Goldstein, a man who devoted his entire life to medical care for the Black people of this country. Your people have lost a great man, a man who was generous, passionate and kind. You three are facing charges of outright murder.”
The atmosphere in the courtroom remained tense as the magistrate continued.
“Do you….Nelson Matshala….Moses Moteba….And you, Alfred Tambana, plead guilty or not guilty to the murder of Professor Goldstein? Remember that at all times, you must speak the truth and nothing else.”
It came as expected: “We are not guilty. We not do it.”
With that the spectators coughed, spoke earnestly amongst themselves and re-positioned themselves on the hard wooden benches. A court bailiff swiftly ordered quiet. The magistrate looked to the accused as they stood helplessly, the White world and a system playing against them.
“Can the prosecution please call upon their first witness.”
“Thank you, Your Worship, I would like to call upon Sergeant Vries.”
A burly blonde man in his early thirties approached the stand.
“Please state your name.”
“My name is Sergeant Janis Vries.”
“How long have you served in the South African Police Force?”
“Where did you discover the body of Professor Goldstein?”
“I was patrolling the streets of Soweto with my partner. We’d been tipped off by one of our informers that a group of ANC leaders were preparing a demonstration against a planned hike in housing rents. The demonstration was to be held close to where our unit was stationed. So we went up to check. As we approached the street, we saw a White man’s body lying on the ground. That’s where we found him. “
“What else did notice?”
“We saw three Black youths running away from the scene.”
“What did you do next?”
“First we went to check the victim, but he was dead and then we chased after the three and brought them in on murder charges, under the Terrorist Act Number 83 of 1967.”
“Can you point out to the court the three youths you and your partner arrested?”
“Yes sir, they’re sitting there over in the dock, sir.”
The faces in the courtroom shifted to the accused and then back to the police officer as if watching a tennis match. The expressions of the accused turned pallor, their eyes blinking epileptically.
“Please describe to the court how Professor Goldstein was murdered.”
“He was lying face up in a huge pool of blood. His throat had been slashed seventeen times, according to the coroner’s report, by a twelve inch razor sharp knife. Both his hands had been chopped off, from the wrists up with a hatchet, and one of the hands had been placed in his mouth. His clothes had been ripped off and the lower region of the body had been mutilated beyond recognition. His testicles had been placed in the hand that stuck out from his mouth.”
The courtroom erupted into a wild array of noise. The magistrate shouted loudly for silence, threatening to charge anyone making more noise, with disturbing the course of the law.
“Where were the weapons found?”
“Next to the body.”
“Were there any fingerprints on the weapons?”
“No, they had been wiped off by the blood.”
“You mean the three accused used the blood to wipe clean any markings of fingerprints?”
“Objection! The prosecution is leading the witness by linking the accused to the murder.”
“Objection sustained. Will the prosecution deal only with the facts. Strike the previous evidence from the record. Please continue.”
“Thank you, your Worship. Sergeant Vries, why weren’t there any fingerprints on the weapons?”
“There was so much blood covering the weapons that any dirt or fingerprints were washed off.”
“Thank you, Sergeant. May I call my next witness, Your Worship?”
The magistrate, briefly looking at his watch, looked up and nodded.
Warrant Officer Pik Smit was called to take the witness stand.
An oldish man, with very thin facial features, his head bearing little hair, approached the stand. As he passed his partner, Sergeant Vries, he gave a quick wink and smile.
“Warrant Officer, Pik Smit….How long have you served in the South African Police Force?”
“Going on twenty-five years now.”
“Would you say that the murder of Professor Goldstein was pre-planned?”
“Sir! Only an animal could be capable of such a horrendous act against a fellow human being. This murder, this murder must be the most gruesome case that I’ve ever come across. I’d say it was definitely pre-planned.”
“Objection! Your Worship, the prosecution is leading the witness again by
linking this case to others.”
“Objection over-ruled. The prosecutor’s question is valid and so is the answer.”
“But Your Worship….”
“Mr. Ginsberg, my decision is final. Can we get on with this trial?”
Advocate Ginsberg, recognized for his successful defense of political
detains, sat down and continued to scribble notes. He knew that in almost all the political trials that he had undertaken, the court always favoured the side of the police. It had always been alleged that Judges and Magistrates in South Africa, had been put under pressure by the BOSS -The Bureau of State Security, to come out with a ruling that would not undermine the Apartheid system
“Where were the three accused when you saw them?”
“They were near the body.”
“Then what happened?”
“We shouted at them to remain where they were, but they ran.”
“When you brought them into custody, did they confess to the murder?”
“Yes. We have it down on a confession sheet, which they signed.”
“Can you describe to the court the attitudes of the three accused after their confession?”
“They seemed very proud of what they had done. They said that they would undertake more such terrorist attacks on Whites until the government fell and that the country was back in the hands of the Black majority.”
“Thank you. That is all. You may step down, Warrant Officer Smit.”
With a triumphant look, rubbing his hands together, the prosecutor declared that his case was closed. The magistrate summoned the Prosecution and the Defence to the bench. After a few minutes of huddling together, he stood and declared that the court was adjourned until the following day. Almost tripping over his chair, the magistrate waddled out. Immediately, six policemen pounced on the accused and marched them away. The spectators took their cue and began to discuss the trial amongst themselves: “They’re guilty.” “They’re not guilty.” There’s not enough evidence.” “This trial is a fucking scam by the government, fuck them.” “They confessed and that’s good enough.” Reporters ran out to file their stories and police photographers again became a hellava nuisance.
In one corner of the public gallery sat an elderly woman. Throughout the proceedings she had remained still, as though cast aside to live alone in the world. Continuously, for hours, her eyes were riveted tightly upon the the wall in front of her. Her sullen face revealed her misery. With deep sadness and regret, she knew she had to be there.
Wednesday 17th June
By nine a.m. the next morning, the courtroom was filled to capacity. In the same corner sat the elderly Black woman, wearing the same clothes as the day before.
“Will the defence please present his case?”
“Thank you, Your Worship. I’d like to call Sergeant Vries to the stand.”
Sergeant Vries approached the stand as confident as ever. Strolling across the courtroom, with a huge smile, Advocate Ginsberg greeted the sergeant who was evidently taken aback by his friendly approach.
“What‘s it like to patrol the streets of a township like Soweto?”
“At first it was tough because it was new situation for us. Some of us had never set foot in a Black township before. But after a while, it became easier. You know, the communists want this country.”
“What do you mean, it became easier?”
“Well, whenever the Blacks saw us, they backed off as if they were scared of confronting us. Also we were well-equipped with riot gear.”
“What does riot gear comprise of?”
“Most of us carry whips, truncheons, teargas, shotguns and rubber bullets. If we found ourselves in extreme danger, we can resort to the use of pistols or assault rifles to protect ourselves.”
“What constitutes a dangerous situation?”
“If rocks, petrol bombs or other such missiles are thrown at us.”
“So you mean, if a ten year old girl throws a stone at you, this constitutes a dangerous situation?”
Sergeant Vries remained silent.
“Well…. Does it or does it not constitute a ‘dangerous situation’?”
“Yes it does.”
“And therefore, you have the right to shoot that young girl dead because she supposedly puts your life in danger? Is that true or not?”
The officer, worried by the line of questioning, stared down to his feet and answered, “Yes.”
“Could you please speak up. The court did not hear your answer.”
“Yes! Yes! I have to protect myself and this country…That’s why I chose to be a policeman!”
“So what you’re saying is that there is no difference in danger whether one person throws a stone or a thousand throw stones?”
“I have to protect this country.”
“Look, I didn’t ask you what you thought of this country. I simply asked if there is a difference between one person or a thousand.”
“There is no difference.”
“Was there a difference after the press was banned from areas of violence?”
“It’s easier to carry out riot control procedures, free from interference. The press got in the way all the time.”
“Objection! Your Worship, the defence is asking questions that have no bearing on this case.”
“Your Worship, the prosecutor knows damn well that my questions are relevant.”
“Objection sustained, Mr. Ginsberg, but if your questions diverge from the subject again I will have to overrule the. And if you continue to use such language in this courtroom again, I will have you removed.”
“Sergeant, you said it was easier not to carry out riot control. Now you can do as you like, you’re no longer under the scrutiny of the public and press. What time did you discover the body?
“Nine thirty am.”
“What was the first thing you saw?”
“We saw the three accused standing by the body.”
“How were they standing?”
“They were looking over the body.”
“What was their behavior like? How did they act?”
They appeared to act quite normal. In fact they seemed quite happy.”
“The length of the street is 755 metres. And halfway down, at 377.5 metres away, you saw the expressions of the accused? You must have very good eyesight Sergeant Vries.”
From the public gallery came a short burst of laughter. Sergeant Vries fidgeted
“So you saw the accused standing there, first? Is that correct?”
“Why did you tell the court that the first thing you saw, was the body and not the accused.?
“I meant the accused.”
“Sergeant Vries, yo have served in the police force for ten years. You have much experience, and now when three young men’s lives are at stake, you say you made a mistake. Are you suggesting that you’re not sure of what you saw?”
“I am sure we saw the three Blacks over the body and then they ran away.”
“What puzzles me and everyone sitting here in this courtroom, is how you and your partner saw all this from half way down the street, and not at the beginning of the street. The only entrance to the street is at the beginning or the end, or maybe you climbed a few houses to land in the middle of the street. Maybe you rented a helicopter….Tell us, was the professor dead or alive when you reached him?”
“He was dead.”
“Your partner, under oath, in this courtroom, said he was alive when you reached the body. So whose telling the truth here?”
“Blood was still pouring out of him when we got there.”
“Plainly, Sergeant, that means the professor’s heart was still functioning and that he was alive. Therefore he was not dead as you said. Is that correct?”
“I don’t remember.”
“It looks as if you can’t remember a thing today.”
Sergeant Vries remained silent, his face white as though never having been touched by the sun.
“Where were the weapons?”
“They lay in the pool of blood.”
“Did you at anytime see the weapons in the hands of the accused?”
“So there is no real evidence that the accused carried out the murder. Can you prove that my clients committed the murder or not?”
“Yes, they were by the body and they confessed to the murder. That is proof alone.”
“If your only proof is a bunch of lies, then I have no further questions.”
“Would you call the next witness, please?”
“Thank you, Your Worship, but before I do that, please let me convey to you and this court, something that has been worrying my clients - the structure of the court. The principles of justice apply to every man, woman and child. But, here in South Africa, my clients are intimidated by a White magistrate, a White prosecutor, many White policemen, and myself, a White defence lawyer. They feel that true justice cannot be performed. We who work within the judicial system hope to believe that justice is beyond political belief and ideologies, but we find it painfully difficult to convince our Black clients they’ll receive a fair trial. As citizens of this country, they are denied the right to vote so they feel they have no right to stand in this court which they see as an instrument of an Apartheid regime that ensures political and economic wealth in the hands of the white minority.”
“Advocate Ginsberg!!! We are here to deal with the sadistic murder of a man, not to discuss the politics of the country. According to the law of this land, every man, woman or child, regardless of skin colour, religion or political leaning will be given a fair trial. Beyond that, let me tell the accused that all men are equal under the law and that includes you. The court is adjourned until 8:00 a.m. tomorrow.”
Thursday 18 June
“Will the court please rise.”
“Will Warrant Officer Pik Smit please take the witness stand.”
“Do you swear……..?”
“Good morning, Warrant Officer Smit, how often have you testified in a murder case?”
“Then you realize the extreme importance of your testimony and you acknowledge that the three young men standing in the dock are dependent on your moral standing as a policeman in the South African Police Force, to speak the absolute truth. The sentence will determine whether my clients receive the death penalty or will be awarded their freedom.”
“Yes, I do realize that.”
“Good. Tell me, was Professor Goldstein dead or alive when you found his body?”
“We found him still alive.”
“But your partner testifies that he was dead when you reached him.”
“He looked dead but blood was still pouring out of his body. My partner must have taken him for dead.
“Did you shout at the accused?”
“Yes, I ordered them to remain where they were.”
“What was their reaction?”
“They began to run.”
“Why didn’t you try to stop them? You could have shot them dead.”
“They were too far away and we wanted to inspect the body first.”
“I don’t believe what I’m hearing!” You’re able to determine the expression on a man’s face, to see if he’s smiling or crying from halfway down the street, but he’s too far away to be shot at. So far, the evidence given by you and your partner borders on the ridiculous. The street in question is so long that even at halfway it is impossible to distinguish the expression on a man’s face. It was your scream that made them run away? Wasn’t it!…Tell us the truth….You wanted them to run away, so as to make them look guilty.”
“No! No! They ran away because they, they’re fuckin’ murderers.”
“Order, there will be no foul language in this court whatsoever do you hear me?” thundered the magistrate.
“When armed police approach a group of Blacks, do the Blacks usually stand around waiting?”
“No, they usually disperse.”
“So they were acting normally?”
“Not in this case. They were standing around a dead White man.”
“If there had been no murder, would their running away seem normal?”
“So what you’re saying is that you and your partner, armed with riot gear, frightened them away?”
“I said it before and I’ll say it again…..They ran off because they’d committed a crime.”
“Okay, lets begin again. You and your partner entered the street because you were told, a riot had been planned?”
“Yes that’s true.”
“Was there any indication that something was about to occur or had occurred?”
“There was nothing unusual happening in the street.”
“Could the accused have been trying to help the professor?”
“Of course not. Why should Blacks help a White man?”
“Officer Smit, I care little for your racist remarks. When I ask a question, I’d like an answer.”
“No, they couldn’t have been trying to help the professor. They confessed to the killing.”
“Tell me Officer Smit, do you know the population size of Soweto?”
“No and I don’t care.”
“Too bad, I’m going to tell you anyway. Its over a million people but it’s not found on any map because only Blacks live there.”
“Who needs to know where it is?”
“At nine thirty a.m. was anyone walking the streets?”
“No, the Blacks were indoors.”
“Do you mean to say that in a city with over a million people, the streets were empty?”
“I suppose they’d gone to work.”
“Let me remind you, Officer, that the murder took place on Sunday 7th June and as far as I’m aware, noone works on a Sunday. So how do you explain the absence of so many people?”
“I don’t know.”
“On the street where the murder took place, there was noone around?”
“I didn’t see anyone.”
“Officer Smit. How many policemen are there in one unit?”
“I can’t answer that, it’s confidential information.”
“Could you ever find yourself in a situation where you were confronted alone?”
“One of our standard orders is never to be alone. Usually there’s a back-up ready in case crowds get out of hand, for safety as well as for a show of force.”
“So why did you and your partner patrol that street alone?”
“We weren’t patrolling, just checking.”
“In my language, Smit patrolling and checking mean pretty much the same thing. How far were you from the rest of your unit?”
“Three streets away.”
“If something had happened, how would you have notified your unit?”
“By blowing a whistle or firing into the air.”
“Why did you go alone if you expected to find a riot?”
“We didn’t feel there was any danger.”
“Even before you reached the street?”
“So can you tell us what’s going on three streets from this courtroom?”
No word has heard from the officer. His face bore a child-like expression
as if having been scolded for bad behavior.
Ginsberg continued, “So you come to a place where a group of Blacks are standing around. There are no signs of a riot but by pure instinct, you feel the situation is explosive. So you call the rest of the unit by firing into the air. The people panic at the sounds of gunshots, and run for their lives. The rest of the unit pitch up and start shooting as well as arresting Blacks who didn’t appear to be posing any threat. Your presence and your so called instinctive action, turned innocent people into criminals.”
The magistrate was quick to interrupt. “Advocate Ginsberg, I don’t know where your line of questioning is leading but it seems irrelevant. I’ve warned you before…”
“Your Worship, my final questions do pertain to the subject”.
Turning to the witness, he added, “Officer Smit, could anyone else account for the actions of you and your partner?”
“Noone but ourselves.”
“So whatever took place out there was only seen by you and your partner?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Are you sure there was nobody else on that street?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“How long did it take for the accused to confess to the murder?”
“Your Worship, please note that it took a week to extract a confession. I will not pursue this matter but merely wonder what methods were used to obtain the confession. Warrant Officer Smit, let me point out what you said earlier - that only the accused could have murdered the Professor because they were standing next to the body. And with a highly developed level of instinct and excellent vision, you knew they had killed him. Is that correct?”
There was a chilling stillness about Warrant Officer Smit as he looked wistfully at the magistrate, then to his partner for reassurance. Without looking up or waiting for an answer to his question, Ginsberg abruptly announced: “You make me sick. Step down. I have no further questions for this witness, Your Worship. Now I’d like to call to the stand a witness who can testify that my clients were nowhere near the body of Professor Goldstein and did not commit the murder. For reasons of her age, her name cannot be revealed.”
From the public gallery stepped a tiny Black girl, dressed in a bright pink dress, who looked about ten years old. As if they were watching a magician performing tricks, the people in the court gasped in wonder and disbelief that a child was going to testify. The and his two apprentices sat idly unimpressed. When the public quietened down, the magistrate beckoned to the girl, placed his hand on her head and whispered in her ear. Her head nodded up and down in agreement. With a glowing smile, he told the girl to approach the witness stand, where a high chair was placed for her.
Then the defense took over.
“I will not ask you too many question. If the questions seem hard, I’ll speak slowly until you understand them. If you do not understand, don’t be afraid to tell me…”
She nodded and a babyish voice, squeaked: “Yes.”
“Do you like policemen?”
“No not like.”
“Can you tell us why?”
“They come here, hit everybody, my brother, hit my mother very hard. They say we are Kaffir.”
“Do you understand what ‘Kaffir’ means?”
“Not understand, but brother of mine say it is no good word.”
“The big policemen hit your brother and your mother. Who else do they hit? ”
“They hit everybody in the street. Everybody run and scream. My mother, she cry all the time. Some of them who police hit, they sleep on ground. Everybody tries to wake them up when policemen go, by they very tired. People take them to bed.
“Not like policemen.”
“Do you remember the White man on the ground?”
“Yes, he good man. Mother take me to him many time. He give me chocolate. He smile and laugh to me. When he sleep on ground, he cry and scream. Police hit all the time.”
“Who did the policemen hit?”
“Hit doctor man, hard.”
“Do you remember how many policemen hit the doctor man?”
“Look very carefully. Do you see the policemen who hit the doctor man, in the big room?”
With her tiny hand just reaching over the rail of the witness stand, she pointed to Smit and Vries.
“They two hit doctor man.”
All eyes in the courtroom were fixed on Smit and Vries. They grinned broadly as if they had just won a fortune. To show how little they cared for this accusation. The defence turned to the girl and asked:
“Are you sure you saw those two policemen hitting the doctor man?”
“I see doctor man cry all time when they hit the doctor man?”
“What did the policemen do after they hit the doctor man?”
“They go to house, take them away from house.”
“Who did they take away?”
She pointed to the accused.
“Your Worship, I have no further questions.”
“Would the prosecution like to cross examine the witness?” asked the magistrate.
The prosecutor nonchalantly answered: “No, I don’t need to ask this girl anything.”
The magistrate adjourned the court until a verdict was reached. Outside the courthouse, in Johannesburg, the press mobbed the prosecutor who stated that he was confident that the Blacks would be convicted of terrorism. Ginsberg was greeted with calls of; ‘Black Lover’. ‘Communist’, ‘Don’t trust the bloody Jews.’
Monday 22nd June
The magistrate announced that he had reached a verdict. When the court reconvened, the public gallery was full as usual. The old woman who looked tired, as though she hadn’t slept in weeks, took her usual seat.
A strange silence fell inside the suffocating courtroom.
The accused stood, trembling with fear and confusion.
The magistrate entered gracefully, with a verdict.
“I have heard all the evidence put forward in this trial and this evidence have I studied it with great care, down to the last minute detail. Professor David Goldstein, a man of good public standing who dedicated his career to serving the poor, died in a needless act of terrorism. It is difficult to know what motivates a human being to cut down the life of another. What can be understood is the basis of acceptable moral behavior, as laid down through our code of ethics and law. This set of rules determines how society should live and protect the individual as well as his property from harm or exploitation. The law also serves as a deterrent. When individuals place themselves above the law, the social structure is reduced to chaos. This must be dealt with quickly and firmly. This is what this trial is about. To show that when a crime has been committed, justice must be carried out quickly.”
The magistrate paused briefly, readjusted his glasses and continued, “I believe in the law strongly and I believe in the South African Police whose task it is, is to uphold the law, to see that it is obeyed.
You Nelson Matshala, Moses Moteba and Alfred Tambana, thought of yourselves as above the law and in a horrific fashion, murdered Professor David Goldstein in cold blood. I hereby sentence the three of you to death for the crime that you all committed…. Do you have anything to say for yourselves?”
“No, Your Worship. My clients have instructed me that they refuse to speak in this racist court. Then only words they wish to express is that they are innocent to the charge of murder. Let me add one thing, Your Worship - this verdict reached today is a moral outrage and disgrace - Fuck you Your fucking Worship.”
“Get him out of here arrest that man!” screamed the magistrate as the courtroom remained densely quiet. Advocate Ginsberg, his face lowered into his hands was quickly taken away by the police guards. The old woman turned slowly and left the courtroom, alone. Vries and Smit embraced. The courtroom emptied quickly. All that remained were the discarded notes of the journalists that had been in attendance.
Two weeks later, after the hanging had taken place in Pretoria Central Prison, two policemen were found shot dead in the streets of Soweto. An old Black woman was arrested, charged with murder.