Crime and Forgiveness (Part 1)

In South Africa there are two types of criminals. Both of them are bad. The two men waiting for Kleinpiet in the old homestead planned his murder to perfection –and they represent the one type.

As soon as he walked into the house, they’d overpower him, bind him with the cable ties they always bring along, and convince him to tell them where the keys to the safe are. They’ve done it many times before – and it always worked.

But, things always sound easier when you plan ahead next to a fire in the veld. There’s something about the flickering flame and the crackle of small twigs catching fire that seems to smooth over the rough spots, especially if you’re tired and desperate. And then there’s the unforeseen – those tiny and seemingly insignificant factors that have a way of sinking even the Titanic. Gertruida calls them kalappenings – something between a calamity and a happening you only get out here in the Kalahari. When, for instance, Vetfaan tripped over Vrede, sprained his ankle but still managed not to spill his beer, Gertruida said that was a perfect example: bad things don’t necessarily only have bad results.

So Kleinpiet could not have foreseen that his life would be saved by the bottles of peach brandy he and Vetfaan exchange every Christmas. It’s the last two bottles of the original stock brewed by the legendary Kalahari Mac – a man who wrote several books in the early 1900’s about life and times in the Northern Cape. These two bottles are priceless – a tangible connection to the wild pioneering days that began all of this.

This year, Kleinpiet got the unlabeled bottle, while Vetfaan has the privilege of exhibiting the one with the quaint picture of a Gemsbok on. At Christmas time, they’d wrap them carefully, exchange bottles, and talk about the day they will uncork the ancient brew – knowing they’d never do it, anyway.

Kleinpiet, as usual, put the bottle on the mantelpiece where it rests until the next exchange. This is where the two men found it after they pushed open the front door. And this is where Kleinpiet found them after he returned from Rolbos. Not even the harsh lives the two men had led could have prepared them for this: the ultimate in pre-terminal intoxication by the century-old brandy made from yellow cling-peaches and honey. Completely oblivious and definitely scoring high on the Glascow Coma Chart, Kleinpiet had absolutely no difficulty in tying them up with their own cable ties before fetching Sersant Dreyer.

Of course the whole town came. Breaking and Entering may be considered a minor crime, but the loss of the peach brandy was unforgivable.

***

“They’ve woken up this morning,” Sersant Dreyer informs the group in Boggel’s Place. “If punishment must fit the crime, I’d think they had enough, already. Even after last year’s wool-cheque party, I’ve never seen eyes as bloodshot or heads so visibly throbbing from a hangover.”

Servaas shakes his head: the mere thought of that hangover still makes him want to take another Grand-pa.

“Now, don’t you go all soft on them! Not only did they gobble down the most precious of brandies in the Northern Cape; now I have to actually go out and buy a present for Vetfaan this year. And what about the ID documents you found in their bag? Or the gun they had?”

Dreyer holds up a hand, like a traffic cop would. “No, don’t you worry. I’ve sent all the information to Upington, and they’re checking. It seems these two might be part of a gang that terrorises isolated farms. Some of the ID’s are connected to various attacks, and the gun was stolen last year in Gauteng. The chaps at HQ are quite interested – they want me to take them through to Upington. If all the evidence tie up, these two men are in some serious trouble.”

“I still can’t believe you almost gave them a lift o town.” Precilla points an angry finger at Kleinpiet. “You must be more careful, Kleinpiet. You can’t trust everybody these days.”

“Ja, I know. I hate to think what could have happened – but I felt sorry for them, sitting out there in the middle of nowhere. It seems so wrong to distrust everybody; it’s not the way we live out here. Remember old Jim Reeves: He sang A stranger’s just a friend you do not know… That’s how I grew up. I don’t think I want to change that.”

“Oudoom is going to see them today,” Gertruida informs them – because she knows everything. “A bit of religion will do them the world of good. And he says we must forgive those that trespass against us.”

“I think we must bring them here. I want them to look us in the eye and tell us why they do these things. Sure, Oudoom says we must forgive those that do wrong – but how can you do that if you don’t know them or understand them? If you forgive a deed, then you’re condoning sin. But if you forgive the person, then you can reject the deed without rejecting the person. That, I think, is what forgiveness is all about.” Servaas is in elder-mode again.

“Ja, isn’t that Biblical? If a man confesses his sins, you can forgive him without praising what he did. What do you think, Sersant? We don’t want to have a kangaroo court; we simply want to give them the opportunity to tell us why. Legal justice isn’t our job, it belongs n the court. But…closure isn’t something we’d get by reading what the judge said in Johannesburg, it’s about what we carry in our hearts. And remember, it was a very old brandy – it’s not just any old plonk they drank out.” Vetfaan is still upset about the loss.

“That’s true.” They look up in surprise as Judge walks in. He’s been writing his memoirs lately, and doesn’t visit Boggel’s Place as often as he did in the beginning. “I’ve been going through my notes and realised that legal justice doesn’t correlate with moral justice. Oh, I’ve handed down many, many sentences in my life; you know how common murder is in our country. Still, I always felt for the families of the victims. A life-long jail sentence for the criminal doesn’t make it easier for those who have lost a father or a mother – or any family for that matter. On one or two occasions, the murderer had the guts to talk to the family and ask for their forgiveness. These families, in my opinion, still had the loss and the grief to deal with, but they found it easier once they faced the criminal and heard the two most important words: I’m sorry.”

Sersant Dreyer shifts his feet uncomfortably. “I’m not sure. I mean, they are in custody and haven’t been tried yet. Legally they’re not criminals…yet. And to drag them over here against their will, may only jeopardise the State’s case. You know how these human rights guys carry on these days. They’ll say it infringes on the rights of these men.”

“Listen,” Kleinpiet is suddenly at Dreyer’s side, “let me tell you about rights. I had a bottle of brandy. That was my right. I also have the right to share that brandy with whoever I choose. Don’t forget: I handed them to you, unharmed. I could have taken them out into the desert, and nobody would have known. I considered that, you know? Only…then I would have had to tell everybody I drank the peach brandy to explain what happened to the bottle, and Vetfaan would have been in his right to kill me. Now that part – the lying and my sudden demise – didn’t sound right to me. So, as the victim of the crime, I think those men should talk to us. “

“Well, legally they are in the care of the state now, and nobody has the right to interfere with the course of justice. The only way they are allowed out – in whatever way – may be on humanitarian grounds, and then it has to be under supervision and strict surveillance. So. Dreyer is right. You have no right to see them, talk to them, make them confess to anything…or say I’m sorry. They’re innocent until proven guilty, remember? How can they apologise if they’re found innocent, anyway?”

“But, dammit Judge, I found them in my house. They drank the peach brandy…”

“Purely circumstantial, my dear Watson. They may have sought shelter. The bottle was empty, but can you prove they drank it? Maybe they had some cheap wine on the way, and simply passed out? Maybe somebody else drank the peach brandy, realised the danger of being caught, and ran away? And can you prove, beyond any doubt, that the bottle was full when they entered the house? These are questions for the court to answer; we’re simply allowing the course of justice. They’ll have their day in court and only then will it be settled. We can’t take justice in our own hands.”

“Maybe not. But anybody can see they’re guilty as sin.”

“Not is South Africa, my friend. Here criminals have more rights than honest citizens. Tell me: if you’re sick, is it the State’s responsibility to look after you and pay your bill? Or when you have specific dietary preferences, say on religious grounds, does the State deliver Halaal or Kosher to your doorstep? No man, you’re the State’s source of income, nothing more. Your taxes are used to make the life of criminals more comfortable – and the crooks have no obligation to you.

“Who, I may ask you, gets punished when a man gets sent to jail for 25 years? Sure, he sits there for the time, but society; after having been robbed, raped and murdered; have to pay for his upkeep. Double whammy – the criminal gets you to pay twice: first by taking what is yours, and later by your forced contribution to his upkeep.

“And remember: they can study in jail. Their votes count just as much as ordinary, law-abiding men and women’s votes. They have sport, craft, apprenticeships, school – you name it, and they have it. And all those privileges cost money – your money. No – we send a man to prison – and we are the ones getting punished.”

Gertruida nods. “Okay, we get the picture.” She’s silent for a while, hesitates, then goes on: “They’re allowed visitors, aren’t they? I mean, before you take them to Upington.”

“Well…yes.” Dreyer is cautious – Gertruida is cooking up some plan, he can see it. “Lawyers, pastors – there’s no problem with that.”

“Then we’ll go and have a chat about faith with them. Right now. Come on, guys, we have to hurry if Sersant still wants to take the men to Upington.”

(To be continued…)

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