Louisa Koekemoer and Kobus Koekemoer were each sentenced to life in prison. Picture: Bongani Shilubane/ANA
As I was faced with the sentencing of little Poppie van der Merwe’s biological mother and stepfather last week, following the child’s horrific murder, I was reminded of the time, when as a young court reporter, I asked the late criminologist, Dr Irma Labuschagne, whether people were born evil or whether they became evil.

Labuschagne, who believed in the most hardened criminal, was adamant that, while life tended to change people, there was good in all of us.

But I had difficulty with this as I looked at Poppie’s mother in court, who was supposed to be her nurturer. I felt anger when she sobbed in the witness stand, telling the court that she, too, had a difficult childhood.

Louisa Koekemoer said her own stepfather abused her for about five years, until her mother had divorced him. She cried even louder as she described her unhappy childhood and how, later in life, she was abused by her first husband, then by Poppie’s father, to whom she was not married, and finally by her second husband and co-accused, Kobus Koekemoer.

He never physically abused her, she said, but mentally. She was so afraid of him that she could not protect her children, especially Poppie, against him, she said.

If she had first-hand knowledge of mental and physical abuse, why did she subject Poppie to this? I asked myself.

Gauteng High Court, Pretoria Judge Bert Bam called it evil. And I agree.

The court found that both she and her husband were equally guilty of murder, as both, to a lesser or larger extent, had assaulted the child over at least eight months.

The pretty blue-eyed, blonde girl seen in pictures published in the media was a far cry from the child depicted in pictures before her death in December. These showed an emaciated child with a clean-shaven head and sunken, dead eyes.

Poppie van der Merwe Picture: Supplied

While I won’t go into detail on Poppie’s abuse, I must mention that her head was bashed against the kitchen cupboard - several times. When she lay seemingly lifeless on the floor, Louisa said Kobus kicked her several times in the stomach.

He, in turn, said she flung the child out of the bedroom and the child’s head hit the wall.

Whoever did what, it was clear that this child’s life was a nightmare. When she lost consciousness on several occasions after being beaten, her parents ridiculed her for “playing dead”.

Even more heartbreaking were the pictures of Poppie’s lifeless body when Kobus finally rushed her to hospital when her body had simply had enough of the abuse and she stopped breathing. The child was dead on arrival. A pathologist counted at least 25 injuries and marks across her body - some old, some new.

Even Judge Bam, a no-nonsense judge, commented during sentencing that it was difficult not to be emotionally affected by what had happened to this child,when looking at the pictures.

It was an emotional trial which not only affected the family, but everyone who heard Poppie’s story. It is near impossible to understand how adults, especially the biological mother, could do this to a helpless child.

I had feelings of immense anger towards them and I was sad for Poppie. But I was also happy, in a sense, that she was dead and no longer had to endure this drawn-out torture.

I was also angry towards her biological father and grandparents. Perhaps I am being unfair, but her father, Christo van der Merwe, with tears in his eyes, on several occasions told the media in court that his little girl, whom he dearly loved, did not deserve this.

But where was he during the past eight months of her abuse? Where were the grandparents? Surely they must have suspected something. Why had Poppie’s mother obtained a family violence interdict against the father and fled to Orania with Poppie and her brother, with only the clothes they were wearing?

Where were the teachers who saw the marks on Poppie and her brother’s bodies? Where were the doctors who examined them from time to time, who noticed the injuries? They all passed the ball to the other.

Then the big question: Why did Poppie’s mother and stepdad abuse her, and to such an extent that she died from it? Was it because they were both abused and punished when they grew up, as they testified? Or were they just bad people?

Dr Labuschagne may have had an answer to this.

Some people on social media reacted that the couple deserved the death penalty.

I also cannot answer this.

At the start of my career, I can still hear the judge saying the same to all facing the ultimate penalty: “You will be taken from here and hung by your neck until you die.”

Not nice at all.

* Zelda Venter is a senior court reporter for Pretoria News.