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Cape Town - There was shock and sadness on Tuesday at the news that wine farmer Johnny Burger, one of two men accused of assaulting worker Flippie Engelbrecht, had been found dead.
“Circumstances indicate the 62-year-old man was responsible for his own death. However, the matter will be investigated,” police spokesman Andre Traut said.
Engelbrecht’s lawyer, Carina Papenfus, told the Cape Times that the 20-year-old had been “badly affected” by the death. When she broke the news to him, “he was traumatised... he started crying”.
Papenfus said Engelbrecht had been moved from Robertson to a secluded venue in Hermanus.
The towns of Ashton and Robertson were at the centre of heated exchanges during last year’s farmworkers’ strike.
Tensions rose again when Burger, who owned the prestigious Rietvallei Wine Estate, was charged along with farm manager Wilhelm Treurnicht of beating Engelbrecht, who was 16 at the time.
Last week, police used a stun grenade and pepper spray after Burger and Treurnicht were confronted by an angry crowd outside Ashton Magistrate’s Court. Stones were hurled at their car.
On Tuesday, flags at the turn-off to the farm between Ashton and Robertson were flying at half mast. The gates to Rietvallei, which is a family-owned estate, were closed, opening only for visitors coming to pay their respects.
A family friend and neighbour, who asked not to be identified, requested that the family be given time to grieve. He said Burger had a “small heart”, but a “golden one”, and was proud of his grandchildren.
In Robertson on Tuesday, word of Burger’s death spread rapidly. One of Flippie Engelbrecht’s friends, Marquet Adams, 19, said: “Everyone here is saying that Johnny Burger could not handle the pressure of the court case any more. It is really sad though because now a family is without a father.”
Engelbrecht’s former neighbour Samuel Visagie said: “Flippie always came to me and spoke about Johnny Burger. He told me that it’s because of Johnny Burger that he is without hands.
“Johnny Burger is no longer with us, but Flippie and his family should look to forgive Burger because they need to move on with their lives. Burger’s children do not have a father now, but Flippie still does.”
President of the Black Association of the Wine and Spirits Industry Nosey Pieterse said: “We are sad for his family. But also sad for Flippie because he wanted to have his day in court. Flippie will also be traumatised because now there will be no closure. He was looking forward to hearing Burger’s answers to questions.”
In a statement released by The Freedom Trust on Tuesday night, Papenfus said that the trust and the Engelbrecht family expressed their “sincere condolences to Burger’s family and loved ones”.
“It is in the interest of justice and democracy that the law must take its course. The criminal prosecution in the Flippie Engelbrecht case as well as in the many others against the same accused will continue. As regards civil claims, same will be instituted against the estate of the late Johnny Burger.
“Flippie is severely shocked and traumatised by the news, but also extremely disappointed for having been denied forever the opportunity to face his attacker in court.”
Burger’s lawyer, Sakkie Krouwkam, said the family had asked him not to comment.
Papenfus denied speculation that a social media campaign had anything to do with Burger’s actions.
“We used our Twitter campaigns to build awareness and gather support for Flippie. This was never to discredit Johnny Burger. If retailers are threatening to stop the sale of his goods then that was his problem, not ours. We have a right to freedom of expression,” Papenfus said.
Those who brought the case to court charged that after the assault Engelbrecht had lost his sight, had epileptic fits, and because of this had rolled into a fire and suffered terrible burns, losing his hands.
Earlier, Burger denied assaulting Engelbrecht, rejecting the charges as “untested and false”.