By Beauregard Tromp

A phalanx of cameras and journalists awaited the Reitz four hours before the start of a trial which holds huge symbolism for the dignity of black people in South Africa.

Local and international television crews and reporters have descended on the tiny two-bench Bloemfontein Magistrate's courtroom to witness the start of a trial which pits two of South Africa's leading legal minds against each other and has cast the University of Free State in infamy.

Johnny Roberts, Schalk van der Merwe, Danie Grobler and RC Malherbe stand accused of making the racist video in 2007, when five black workers were made to go through a mock initiation, including eating food that had apparently been urinated upon.

"Nothing has changed," said a National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) shop steward at UFS who would only identify himself as Mazwi.

He said that despite the university officials trumpeting change, hostels still remain predominantly segregated and workers still suffered abuse at the hands of white students.

The five workers involved in the Reitz video were still employed at the UFS campus but were no longer involved with maintaining the hostels.

A small group of UFS workers who are affiliated to Nehawu were present in court to observe proceedings.

The Free State Human Rights Commission head Mothusi Lepheane was also in attendance. The HRC, on behalf of the five workers, is pursuing charges in the Equality Court against the four accused and are demanding R4 million in compensation and an unconditional apology to the workers and all black people.

The symbolism of the court case has not been lost on the main protagonists, with the four accused represented by the formidable Kemp J Kemp SC.

The State has called upon Johan Kruger SC, the head of the NPA's organised crime section, to do battle in the Bloemfontein Magistrate's Court.

The video caused a national and international outcry, heralding back to common apartheid-era incidents.

The four face a charge of crimen injuria but holds huge symbolic value for a country still basking in the afterglow of a successful World Cup.

"Obviously, we live in South Africa where discrimination and racism is of great importance and therefore I would suspect the case has taken on such a symbolic importance," said legal expert professor Pierre de Vos.

Kemp became nationally renowned after successfully defending President Jacob Zuma in a rape trial. Prior to this, Kemp was well known in legal circles as a defence lawyer in the criminal court, successfully defending a prominent Durban businessman who admitted to killing his brother in self-defence and successfully. He had a rape conviction against IFP MP Albert Mncwango overturned on appeal.

The advocate from Kwazulu-Natal has also ended up defending the rights of residents and has even taken the Minister of Environmental Affairs to court to fight for fishing rights for fishermen.

Kemp is best known for his defence of Zuma during a marathon trial.

In his opening salvo during the Zuma rape trial Kemp asked that the presiding judge recuse himself and, during the course of proceedings, managed to convince the court that the complainants sexual history form part of the record.

Opposing Kemp is a man more familiar with dealing with elaborate criminal networks as the head of the NPA's organised crime unit and spends most of his days as the man behind bringing down syndicates.

Referred as one of National Directorate of Public Prosecutions boss Menzi Simelane's generals, Johan Kruger SC most recently successfully convicted the four schoolboys- known as the Waterkloof Four- who killed a homeless man in 2001. For six years Kruger fought tenaciously as the four appealed, finally securing a sentence of 12-years.

"The State wouldn't want to lose the case because symbolically it would send a very bad signal. it's not about the stakes or the money but about the symbolism," said de Vos.

  • This breaking news flash was supplied exclusively to by the news desk at our sister title, The Star.

    For more about this story, carry on watching or click here to subscribe to the digital or print edition of the newspaper.