Johannesburg - Nomonde Plaatjies knows that she would be better off if she could find peace in her heart and forgive the man who murdered her nine-year-old brother, and eventually stole the life of her mother.
Consumed with emotion, Plaatjies stutters and struggles to speak. She has finally come face to face with Stefaans Coetzee. She has waited so long – 16 years – to confront the former AWB member who on Christmas Eve in 1996 changed her life forever.
Plaatjies and the 66 other survivors of the Worcester bombing travelled 2 714km to see Coetzee at the Pretoria Central Prison on Thursday. They want to forgive him. They want to move forward.
But Plaatjies is unsure. No one can force her to forgive a terrorist, who himself confessed that he wanted to kill as many people as possible that day. In fact, he was disappointed when only six people died.
She remembers December 24, 1996, as if it were yesterday.
“I was four months pregnant. My brother Xolani and I went to town, to the Shoprite. I told him to wait for me at the entrance. When I was done with the shopping I couldn’t find him, I thought he had gone home, so I went home too. Then I heard the explosions. I never thought that he would be caught in it.”
Plaatjies and her mother, Lailai Matshoba, were not allowed to see Xolani. He had been so close to the bomb that his young body was ripped to pieces.
“He was a good boy. He would have been that boy who went out and made something of his life. My mother was never the same after he died. She tried to live her life. But she died of a broken heart,” Plaatjies sobs, her grief still raw.
“I don’t know about forgiving him. I thought if I came here today I could see the man who robbed me of my loved ones. I listened to what he said. He says he is sorry, he is a changed man. I have tried, but I can’t – yet.”
Coetzee, in his orange prison outfit and holding a microphone, had come to explain how he received his orders from the AWB to place bombs at the Shoprite and the Narotam Pharmacy in Worcester, how he had obeyed his orders. He had come to say sorry.
The air in the prison hall was thick with angst. Coetzee’s victims were on the edge of their seats, hanging on to his every word. He and his friends had shattered South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy. The victims had come to hear why.
“We wanted to kill as many people as we could. We planted three bombs and each had a time delay of three minutes. Two of them didn’t go off. We were extremely disappointed that so few people were dead. We really regretted that,” he told them.
But he added that when he heard that three children had also died, he was shaken to his core.
“I never thought about that, that children could die in the bomb blasts. It really affected me badly. I felt like a coward.
“I am really sorry for what I have done, I don’t deserve anyone’s forgiveness. But I hope that some of you can try,” he said, his voice cracking as tears streamed down his cheeks.
And many of the victims who took part in the Restorative Justice Programme dialogue this week have forgiven him – like
Her uncle, Sydney Jalile, had been sitting on top of the bin which contained the bomb. His body was found in two pieces. But Mgomezulu identified his clothing.
“I loved my uncle. He lived with me, we were very close. He was so attractive and loved looking at himself in the mirror. He was so funny. He wasn’t married and he had no children. I still miss him so much. There is still such a big hole in my heart.”
When she heard about the bombing at Shoprite, she knew in her heart that he had died there. And when she arrived at the chaotic scene, her fears were confirmed. He was dead.
“Our family does not celebrate Christmas any more. For us it is just a normal day. It is too sad. But I came here today to see Stefaans, I have forgiven him.”
Anita April, however, has not.
Her nine-year-old daughter Janeen also died that day. Her son, who was four at the time, was severely injured.
April looks sad, flustered and defeated.
She had taken her children to Shoprite to choose their Christmas gifts.
“When they chose their presents I sent them to the front of the store to wait for me while I paid for the shopping. Just then the bomb went off. Everyone ran. I wanted to run for my children, but we were ushered to the back of the store. I was hysterical. They wouldn’t let me go.”
She finally found out that both her children had been rushed to hospital, and when she arrived found her son was okay, but that Janeen had died.
“I’m still so sad talking about it. My son was so small then. I still miss Janeen. I can only imagine what kind of person she would have been today. (Coetzee) took that from me.
“I want to forgive him. I can’t though. I’m still so sore,” she says.