The Heartbreak of Farm Murders

John Webb
By John Webb | Follow @journojohn
John Webb began his career in journalism as a wide-eyed cub reporter at news agency Network Radio News in 1997. He joined Talk Radio 702 in 1999 as a reporter and news reader and was assigned to major news stories. John then joined Carte Blanche in 2004, where he presented current affairs programmes from the field. He [...] See full profile

This is my second attempt at writing this blog. The first was a desperately trite effort, doomed to fail on account of its being a thinly veiled attempt at what people with nose-rings and a vitamin D-deficiency might call “virtue signalling“.  The easiest arguments to win tend to be the ones that you have with yourself, and I was convinced that I could satisfactorily draw a comparison between “Black Monday” and a murder that happened more than 20 years ago.  It took me several hundred words and three cappuccinos to realise I couldn’t.  I saved it as a draft and began all over again.  Hence where we currently find ourselves: a seven-line paragraph and not a clue where to go from here.

Perhaps, if you’ll permit me a little indulgence, I’ll begin at the V&A Waterfront around Christmas last year.

Those with little children will know that school holidays are a period of utter torment, designed to inflict psychological and, in some cases physical, pain on parents unprepared for the demands of young minds in need of constant stimulation. They are wretched times from which parents emerge a shadow of their former selves, brow beaten and defeated.  The only possible salvation: a carefully researched holiday diary, complete with Google Maps and a timetable compiled with the obsession of a Swiss train driver.  It was such a diary that found me standing near the Clocktower at the Mandela Gateway on a hot December afternoon buying tickets to a petting zoo.

Farm Murders

A bale of straw was pulled to one side, and my daughters unleashed on an array of rabbits, chicks and goats.  The owner, a tall man with a kind face, was talking to two inspectors from the SPCA.  They seemed impressed by the condition of the animals, and I got the impression he took great pride in the steps he’d taken to keep them cool under the blazing Cape Town sun.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I had become one of Mark Fagan’s many happy customers, delighted to have filled another hour doing something that didn’t involve sugar or loud music.

Just a few years older than me, he had become known at schools and children’s parties as “Farmer Mark”.  He and his wife, Joanne, had bought a small plot outside the Western Cape hamlet of Philadelphia and turned it into a little haven for their zoo’s many and varied residents. While she headed to work on the outskirts of Cape Town each day, Mark toiled on the farm or criss-crossed the city like a latter-day Old McDonald.  To the outsider, it appeared an existence stripped of the complications and stresses of modern life.  What joy it must have brought their daughter, now 14 and the centre of her father’s universe.

I was told of how Mark and I had crossed paths by his father, who emerged from behind the animal pens shortly after our crew had driven into a dusty and unassuming front yard. His handshake was firm but his face oddly lifeless.  He, too, had been at the Waterfront on that hot December afternoon but, much as we both wished it, this was not to be a reunion.

His son was dead.

Joanne told me how he’d “roared like a bear” on the night four – perhaps five – intruders forced their way into his home and confronted his daughter and a group of her friends during a birthday sleepover. His courage that night is already ingrained in the local folklore, and surely provides at least some comfort to Joanne who now confronts her future as a widow.  But, how tormented she must be by the image of her daughter cowering at a sliding door on the far side of the stoep watching as her father, felled by a bullet that pierced his heart, lay dying in a pool of blood.

The following day, and what seemed like a world away, Marlene Conradie sat at the dining room table of the farmhouse she now shared with her teenaged son and young daughter.  It sat atop a little rise in the winelands of Klapmuts, near Stellenbosch, surrounded by vines and olive and pear trees. A little concrete dam provided water for the plants and, on the day we visited, relief from the relentless heat for her son, Hannes.

Marlene trembled from the pain that so obviously consumed her. She cried often in the several hours we spent in her home. Like Joanne, she was now a widow.

Her husband, Joubert, had been shot several times by intruders.  As he lay slowly dying on their kitchen floor, their daughter ran around his body crying, “what is wrong with daddy”.  That, said Marlene, was the image that haunted her most.  How could it not?

Ours had been an assignment to cover “Black Monday”, a series of spontaneous protests organised to highlight – depending on who one spoke to – the scourge of farm murders, murders on farms, or murders and crime in general.  And this is the part where I’m expected to reflect on the unfurling of the apartheid flag and singing of Die Stem by a group of racist yobs, and to expound on the country’s crime statistics. Perhaps it’s also expected of me to delve into the morality of a protest some say is predicated on the warped notion of one type of murder being worse than another, of one life being worthier than another. But, if it’s all the same to you, I’ll leave that to the pundits on Twitter.  Sanctimony in the face of such gut-wrenching heartbreak seems, well, a little pitiless, and what utter disrespect would it not be to two little girls who have lost their daddies?

I have been a journalist for 20 years, and I have covered every manner of crime in every conceivable corner of the country. I have interviewed the victims or, where their lives have been callously taken – as they are 52 times a day – I have spoken to their husbands, wives, children, extended families and friends.  It doesn’t get easier and, frankly, I’m growing weary.