Pretoria - Messages of forgiveness and support by victims who survived the 1996 Worcester bombing in which four people died and 67 were injured left bomber Stefaans Coetzee in tears on Thursday.
Gasps could clearly be heard as Coetzee told his victims he had specifically chosen Christmas Eve as he wanted to kill as many people as possible.
“I knew many people would rush to the shops for last-minute shopping and I knew it was a day when everyone would be happy, looking forward to celebrating Christmas.
“When I went home I was disappointed that so few people had died. I immediately started building another bomb,” he said.
Coetzee, who looked nervous, broke down as his victims came up to him, one by one, and embraced him.
Coetzee was only 17 when he detonated one of two bombs that shook the small town of Worcester, in the Western Cape.
He and three others targeted Shoprite and a pharmacy in the Worcester Mall on that fateful day.
The bombings were politically motivated and Coetzee, then a member of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging and supporter of Wit Wolf Barend Strydom, said he didn’t accept the new government at the time.
“I was filled with hatred and I still don’t know why,” he said.
The Department of Correctional Services had arranged for a group of 50 survivors to meet Coetzee as part of its victim-offender dialogues programme aimed at seeking forgiveness. While some preferred not to speak to Coetzee and questioned the reason behind the visit, others bared their souls and made it clear they thought forgiveness would set them free.
Survivor Patricia Gordon said she was satisfied with what she had seen and heard from Coetzee.
“I am not going to speak about that day. I can see that you have regret and that you have made an effort to change. I want to dedicate Psalm 23 to you and I want you to know that I forgive you,” she said.
Coetzee replied by saying he would carry Psalm 23 in his heart and asked Gordon to continue praying for him. “I have come a long way and it is through your prayers that I have managed that. Please continue praying for me,” he said.
With tears still streaming down her face after hugging Coetzee, Ionela Phondoyi said it was important for her to forgive him.
Although she was only five years old when the bombing happened, Phondoyi said she still suffered from the aftermath at times and she wanted to free her heart.
One after the other, the survivors stood up and addressed Coetzee.
One survivor said she desperately wanted to forgive him, but she didn’t how. “Every time I think about forgiveness I feel a burning feeling of hatred,” she said, sobbing.
With shrapnel scars visible on her arms, Phondoyi’s mother, Eugenia, said she remembered seeing a blue flame and then hearing a loud bang.
“My daughter (Ionela) was playing under the Christmas tree which was in the middle of Shoprite. I remember my first thought was whether she was all right. My ears were ringing and I was very disorientated, I grabbed her and shielded her body with mine,” she said.
“Moments later a man pulled us from the rubble.”
Eugenia said her daughter, now 22, received a head injury and was doing Grade 12 for the second time.
“I have forgiven Coetzee, and if he had been in prison in Worcester, I would have visited him,” she said.
Coetzee, Nicolaas Barnard, Abraham Myburgh and Johannes van der Westhuizen were arrested shortly after the bombings. They targeted stores at which blacks and coloureds shopped.