The much-awaited verdict on the case involving two white South African farmers was finally delivered on Friday by Justice Segopotje Mphahlele, who found the two guilty of the six charges leveled against them.
Mr. Theo Jackson and Willem Oosthuizen, who own ranches in Middelburg, South Africa, were caught on camera forcing a terrified black man into a coffin and threatening to set him ablaze. The two accused the young man identified as Victor Mlotshwa of trespassing on their land.
The unfortunate incident, which happened in August 2016, caused a stir in South Africa, arousing the deep-seated racial division that has often threatened to take the country back to the days of apartheid. Many South Africans condemned the incident and called for the arrest and prosecution of the two farmers.
In her verdict, Justice Mphahlele found the two guilty of kidnapping, attempted murder, intimidation and assault. Mphahlele termed the incident as “disgusting and dehumanizing”.
Mr. Jackson, 30, was sentenced to 14 years in prison while his colleague Oosthuizen, 29, got 11 years. The court also found the two guilty of assaulting the only witness in the case in an attempt to silence him.
The visibly angry Judge reiterated that the jail term was based on South Africa’s history, growing racial intolerance and constitution.
‘We Meant No Harm’
In their defense, the two farmers claimed that Mr. Mlothshwa had entered their land with the intention of stealing power cables, adding that they did not mean to harm him. According to them, the assault was only meant to scare him.
Their relatives and friends, who were sitting in the court’s gallery, wailed as the sentences were read.
But the complainant, who was accompanied by his relatives and members of his community, refuted the trespassing claims arguing that he had taken a shortcut to the nearby shops.
In her judgment, Mphahlele explained that the accused had not shown any form of “remorse” for their actions throughout the trial, asserting that the incident was racially motivated. She added that the jail term will serve as a lesson to anyone who still practices racism in the country.
Many South Africans welcomed the sentence as a warning to individuals and communities that still discriminate fellow human beings on the basis of race. Outside the Middelburg court, South Africans, most of them dressed in their political party colors, applauded the verdict and congratulated Judge Mphahlele for her “momentous” ruling.
“We need to send a stronger message that such type of dehumanizing behavior will not be tolerated,” a South African political analyst, Nomboniso Gasa, told Al Jazeera after the verdict.
But not everyone was convinced that the two farmers deserved the jail term. Some have argued that the case had been overly politicized.
A human rights activist in Middleburg by the name of Ben Burger believes the sentence was harsh, adding that the two didn’t deserve so many years.
“They were punished because they were white. If they were black, they would not have been given so many years,” Burger told Al Jazeera.
Others argued tha the law was applied selectively, citing the many cases of white South Africans, especially ranch owners, who have been murdered by locals over land issues.
But whether justice was served or not, racism remains a divisive topic in South Africa, more than two decades after the end of apartheid.