Police say they did not take action against a rampaging mob of farmers who stormed a court and torched a police vehicle in the Free State because the situation could have led to innocent people losing their lives.
A large group of farmers ran riot at the Senekal magistrate’s court on Tuesday, where two men accused of killing farm manager Brendin Horner appeared. The mob attacked state property, attempted to overturn a police Nyala and set alight a police van as police stood by and watched.
The violence erupted after the case against Sekwatje Mahlamba, 32, and Sekola Matlaletsa, 44, who allegedly murdered Horner and tied him to a pole in Paul Roux, was postponed. An angry mob of farmers were captured on video storming the court and forcefully trying to get into the holding cells where the accused were held demanding that the suspects be handed over to them.
Free State police spokesperson Brig Motantsi Makhele said officers who were present during the protest should be commended for applying their minds in their response.
“It was a volatile situation that could have led to innocent people losing their lives. The situation ended with only damage to property and no injuries from both sides. That is commendable,” Makhele said.
Makhele said intelligence was gathered that there would be a group of farmers who would attend the court hearing in solidarity with Horner’s family.
“We would have deployed more officers to the court if we knew that the group would attempt to storm the court but the information we gathered did not indicate that things would happen the way they did,” he said.
Makhele said a 52-year-old farmer was arrested on Wednesday for his role in the torching of the police vehicle. He said police were gathering evidence and going through video footage of the protest, in which shots were also fired, to identify culprits for arrest.
There has been widespread outrage and condemnation of the acts of violence and intimidation, with police minister Bheki Cele labelling the events as lawlessness and calling for the arrests of those behind it.
“This type of lawlessness cannot be justified nor taken lightly. There is no logic when protesters burn a police van, which is the same resource which is meant to assist them,” Cele said.
The minister’s spokesperson Lirandzu Themba said police officers were outnumbered by the horde of farmers and acted in a manner that prevented injury or loss of life. She said after Cele’s demand for arrests, they been inundated with unsavoury messages from farmers across the country She said they had reported the insults and threats to crime intelligence for further handling.
A police officer who was at court told Sowetan that they were intimidated by the “thugs” while stationed at court. The officer, who cannot be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media, said a crowd of about 20 farmers approached two officers who were seated inside a police vehicle before it was torched.
“They saw the group approaching them and they stepped out of the vehicle before they overturned it and set it alight,” the officer said.
PODCAST | Survivors recount their farm attack
Farm manager Brendin Horner’s body was found tied to a farm gate after he was killed by unknown attackers on October 2 2020. The death has outraged agricultural leaders and community members from Senekal and surrounding areas who demanded justice.
“They tried to access the accused in the holding cells but they could not get through to them. They became angry and targeted us who were outside the court.”
Another police officer told Sowetan that they called for backup before the matter was heard in court.
“After the arrests [of Mahlamba and Matlaletsa] we received information that the farmers were mobilising but we did not know the number of farmers who would be coming to the case. Senior management in Paul Roux decided for the matter to be heard in Senekal and get backup,” he said.
The officer, who is stationed in Paul Roux, said tensions were generally high between farmers and police officers due to the mistrust harboured by farmers.
Amiliah Matletsi, the Police and Prison Civil Rights Union’s (Popcru) provincial secretary, said the police’s response to the volatile situation was commendable.
“The situation could have got out of hand because of how tense the situation was. We do not agree with the unruly behaviour and believe those behind it should be arrested,” she said.
. Ernst Roets, AfriForum’s CEO, said farm attacks needed to be considered a priority crime due to the nature of violence and brutality that victims suffered.
By Tankiso Makhetha – SowetanLIVE