Nick-of-time boost for reporter’s defence

Published Jun 30, 2024


Reporter Tony Weaver was charged with breaking apartheid-era censorship laws for his reporting on the Gugulethu Seven murders. As the trial started in 1987, Weaver’s defence team found crucial witnesses to Gugulethu Seven murders the previous year.

This extract from Beverley Roos-Muller’s book Hunting the Seven, describes how it came about.

Despite their deep concern about the missing ballistics, some surprisingly good news had arrived for the defence in the nick of time, on the very first day of Weaver’s trial back in April. Gordon Rushton was contacted by a colleague, Andrew Corbett, at that time an articled clerk in Cape Town, who had a contact at the Astra School for physically disabled children in Wittebome, near Wynberg.

This contact told Corbett that some of their staff and pupils had actually seen the killings in Gugulethu on the morning of March 3 the previous year.

The discovery of these bus witnesses was a tremendous break for the defence, one that the prosecution had kept carefully hidden – for they had known about these witnesses all along.

There was a drawback for Weaver’s team, however. The witnesses, as well as the head of the school, Mr J Raaff (whom the driver, Ronald Benting, 48, had notified about the shocking incident on the day it happened), were very reluctant indeed to meet Weaver’s lawyers, or get involved in any court trial. Such was the fearful atmosphere of the time, especially among the more vulnerable; these bus witnesses were all designated “coloured”, with their history of dispossession and diminishment in the Cape.

Reporter Tony Weaver testifies at the Truth and Reconciliation hearing on the Gugulethu Seven killings. | LEON MULLER

Tian van der Merwe’s renowned powers of persuasion were once again pressed into use. Rushton asked him to urgently visit the school in Wittebome and assess the value of this evidence – as an MP, Van der Merwe was difficult to deny. After some initial resistance from the nervous housemother, 39-year-old Patricia Smith, he gained her confidence to the point where she confessed to him that she had seen one of the traumatic shootings with her own eyes.

Smith had been working at the school for four years; her responsibility was to travel on the school bus to see to the needs of the children, as well as supervising as they were lifted on and off. On that murderous morning, she had also had the difficult task of comforting the disabled children who had seen the gruesome event.

Van der Merwe regarded these bus witnesses as very credible, and reported back to Rushton that their evidence was indeed extremely important.

Rushton and Gauntlett visited the Astra School as soon as they could, during the first break in the trial, late in April, in order to speak to Smith and assess her evidence, and also to determine whether she would be useful as a witness. “We sat in a circle, each on a tiny plastic chair designed for preschool toddlers, who slept all around us on the carpeted floor, while we discussed how, on March 3, 1986, she had witnessed a policeman walk over to a man lying motionless in the road in Gugulethu, and shoot him in the head. I remember being struck by how incongruous it all felt,” Rushton recalled.

What Smith cautiously told them was crucial. The school bus was busy on that Monday morning with its usual rounds, picking up and dropping off disabled children at various schools. There had been thirteen children, aged between 9 and 15, on the bus when the driver, Benting, crossed the bridge into Gugulethu.

Patricia Smith had been sitting in the second row of seats in the bus, just behind a 14-year-old named Cliffie Witbooi, who had artificial legs; Smith had had a clear view out of the flat-fronted bus window.

She remembered there were two vehicles (the two white vans) parked at this first intersection into Gugulethu; a man was lying on the ground close to one of them.

“I then saw somebody come up to the man who was lying on the ground and he shot the man in the head."

She said that the weapon was a “short, small gun”; the shooter, standing over the fallen man, had used his right hand. “I don’t know how many shots were fired … he was not wearing a uniform. There was no blood in the road before the shooting but as soon as the man was shot, I saw blood appear. I was too shocked to say anything at first – my main concern was for the children.”

Smith also recalled seeing someone else lying on the other side of the road.

Ronald Benting, the driver, told the court during the trial that the police had ordered him to stop his bus near the intersection, about two or three metres from one of the white kombis: “There were a lot of policemen or securities blocking the road, I couldn’t go through.”

He now saw a white policeman wearing a “blueish” windbreaker come from the Dairy Belle side of the intersection, walk up to the black man lying on his stomach on the ground, and shoot him twice in the head.

“The man used a short gun – a small handgun.”

Benting said that the gun was not against the man’s head, but very close, maybe 30-40 centimetres away. Immediately after, the driver saw blood running down the side of the man’s face and into the road.

This shooter then came over to the bus, asked Benting what he was doing there and ordered him to leave, which he hastily did, making a U-turn. When the prosecutor, attempting to discredit his evidence, asked why he had not challenged the order to leave, Benting replied, “Well, he was holding a gun …”

About ten minutes after she had witnessed the shooting, Smith’s shock kicked in: she had broken down; she was in a terrible mess, she told the legal team, and was given “versterkdruppels” (traditional “strengthening remedy”) by the housemother at their next stop.

The bus children had at first thought they were seeing a television play, but now, as reality hit, some of the children began feeling sick and were also given aid.

Benting had seen only one body, but Cliffie Witbooi, who was sitting at the front of the bus, saw another body lying in the road on his side of the vehicle. Witbooi had seen a black man holding his hands up in the air, after which a white man had shot him; he was sure that the shot had killed the man.

Under cross-examination, the prosecution tried to insinuate that Cliffie Witbooi might be “slow”, and have difficulty in knowing the difference between the truth and lies, yet what became clear by the pressure put on the boy was that he had not fabricated his evidence: he was sure of what he had seen with his own eyes.

Both Smith and the head of the school, Raaff, resisted taking part in the trial. Eventually, because her evidence was so important, Rushton issued a subpoena to compel Smith’s attendance in court. Rushton’s view was that such subpoenas had an additional benefit of clarifying to the court that Smith was not volunteering evidence, but instead was present with the greatest reluctance. This meant she could not be accused of making up evidence for a political motive, something the prosecution tried to imply during the trial with some of the other witnesses.

Now, not only the hostel witnesses but also those who had been present, by coincidence, on the school bus, were providing a very different perspective: that the killings, or at least some of them, likely had been carried out in cold blood, when the victims were helpless.

Hunting the Seven by Dr Beverley Roos-Muller is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers at the recommended retail price of R320

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