Review: Vivien Horler
The Last Words of Rowan du Preez – Murder and conspiracy on the Cape Flats, by Simone Haysom (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
Rowan du Preez, a petty criminal aged 22, was necklaced on October 13, 2012 in bush on the outskirts of Mfuleni. A passerby heard him screaming, saw the fire, and called the police.
The police found Du Preez badly burnt and still screaming, the remains of a tyre smouldering nearby. They asked him who he was, and he told them, adding he had been attacked by Angy Peter and her husband Isaac Mbadu.
Du Preez died shortly afterwards in hospital.
The matter received extensive media coverage for several reasons, probably the main one being that Angy Peter was well known in Mfuleni and Khayelitsha. She was a founding member of the Social Justice Coalition, and had been helping collect damning evidence to be presented to the commission of inquiry into policing in Khayelitsha. She was feisty, tireless in her efforts to help people – and flawed.
She, Mbadu and two others were accused of murder, based on Du Preez’s dying words. The ostensible motive was that Du Preez had stolen Isaac and Peter’s television set. Peter’s defence was that vengeful police had framed her.
Peter and Mbadu were defended in the Cape High Court by top advocate William King, his reportedly reduced fees – more than R1.5million – being paid by the Coalition for Social Justice and associated organisations. The couple were found guilty, but released on bail pending an appeal.
Those are the basic facts, but the story Simone Haysom tells is a complicated, convoluted and depressing one of life on the edge in a Cape Flats township, of anger, violence, drunkenness, poverty and simmering resentments.
The court case itself was also a depressing one with Hayson describing terrifying incompetence on the part of the prosecution and the police, and even questioning Judge Robert Henney’s competence and reasoning.
Running parallel with Du Preez’s story is Haysom’s account of the Khayelitsha commission into policing where a picture of “true dysfunction” emerged. She quotes figures showing that while the commission considered no detective should be investigating more than 50 cases at a time, in Harare they were often investigating 79, in Site B 67, and in Lingelethu West an eye-widening 127.
“The impact of these workloads on the quality of investigations was obvious. Harare Police Station had a conviction rate of 3.3% for its murder dockets.”
Haysom was impressed by the commission which refused to accept the excuse that, given the almost hopeless environment in which police functioned, they could not be blamed for their lack of success.
And in fact after the commission made its recommendations, local policing began to improve, although this was not helped by then police commissioner Riah Phiyega’s response to the commission report that it had been “an expensive and resource-hungry paper exercise” whose conclusions were “biased and misdirected”.
One of Phiyega’s claims was that all police stations had reliable telephone systems that were accessible to the community. Virtually anyone who’s ever tried to phone a police station knows the truth of that.
Haysom says in writing this book she was hoping to find justice. “If Angy were guilty, that would be justice for Rowan, at least. And if there was no justice, I wanted at least for there to be truth… Yet I failed to find out who was behind Angy’s arrests, and even to really understand why these events unfolded the way they did.”
In a shout on the cover broadcaster John Maytham says this book, written with “great integrity”, reads like a thriller. But thrillers usually end with a sense of satisfaction that the good people have won and the baddies are behind bars. In this book it’s hard to distinguish the goodies from the baddies.
I’m not suggesting The Last Words of Rowan du Preez is not worth reading – it’s an important book that shines a light on a part of our society we need to acknowledge and do something about. But the book is more likely to leave you dispirited than satisfied.