Rage, defiance and gunfire shattered the calm of a sleepy town in northern KwaZulu-Natal 10 days ago.
There are more questions than answers surrounding the death as a result of police gunfire last Thursday, January 20, of wealthy farmer and renowned gunmaker Kobus de Vries, 54, in Babanango.
De Vries’s brother Thinus is adamant the police overreacted, that there were no fewer than 40 police officers on the property, including tactical response team snipers, and that they “were never under serious threat”.
But according to police spokesman Colonel Jay Naicker, De Vries was shot when he fired at local police and tactical response team members after a lengthy standoff at his farmhouse.
The confrontation was precipitated by De Vries crashing into an Eskom vehicle and another car, and fleeing the scene of the accidents, said Naicker. However, his relatives dispute the police version of events and have hired a private investigator and engaged the services of a private pathologist.
De Vries was buried in his hometown, Heidelberg, yesterday.
“The allegation (of the car crashes) does not make sense, because there was only a scrape on my brother’s car,” said Thinus.
He alleged that police had used a farm worker to lure De Vries out of his house with promises that he would not be fired on. Media reports have stated that he was shot in the back while allegedly attempting to run back into his home.
“Three shots were fired by snipers, from two different calibre guns. The second bullet hit his arm. As he stumbled into his house, his shotgun hanging at his side, a third bullet hit him in the neck and killed him,” said Thinus at yesterday’s funeral.
Having dropped off his bride of 10 months, Rentia, at King Shaka International Airport on Thursday morning, De Vries drove back to Babanango, where he allegedly rammed into a vehicle driven by a female Eskom employee.
According to De Vries’s uncle, Phillip van Vuuren, he struggled with power outages at his farm almost daily. Neighbours confirmed frequent disruption to their electricity supply.
Naicker said police were “working on getting clarity regarding the incident” and were awaiting the results of the state post mortem on De Vries before releasing any further comment on his injuries.
“It appears that he bumped into an Eskom vehicle driven by a lady driver in the village at around 2pm, and sped on without stopping,” said Naicker.
Although he won’t divulge his sources, Thinus has a different version, with only one accident in it.
“Kobus skimmed her car as he was overtaking her. He did stop, and agreed with the woman to go to the police station, but decided to go home instead. I know he had no confidence in the Babanango police, even though he’d tried in the past to promote co-operation,” said Thinus.
Eskom media spokesman Mametse Dikatso confirmed that an employee had been involved in a collision at Babanango, but could not comment further due to the ongoing investigation.
Regarding the car incident, Naicker said: “She took his vehicle registration number and went straight to the police. They were able to ascertain the identity of the driver, and headed towards De Vries’s farm.
“On the way they came upon another collision. De Vries had tried to overtake a vehicle in the face of an oncoming car, and collided with the first vehicle.
“He ignored police instructions to stop, and entered his farm gates, followed by police. There was a tense standoff and a lengthy period of negotiation took place, mediated by a hostage negotiator from Vryheid. A wood cutter working on the farm was also roped in to help with the negotiations.
“At 5.10pm police called for reinforcements and a tactical response team came from Ulundi. De Vries resisted all attempts to get him to hand himself over. He began firing wildly at police from inside the house. They shielded themselves behind a police vehicle. The van was riddled with bullets but no officers sustained injury. De Vries was shot and died at the scene. The ordeal lasted a number of hours.”
Thinus said his brother had an “arrangement” with the police that they would not enter his property without his permission.
The situation was exacerbated when it became clear the police had somehow entered the property, though Kobus was not aware of the tactical response team snipers hiding in the bushes, said Thinus.
Regarding the shots from inside, he said: “Yes, Kobus shot a couple of times, but it was not uncommon for him to shoot inside the house. He was a gunsmith and used to practise setting his rifles. He was convinced the police were going to kill him and he wanted to scare them off.”
Kobus had fired “donsal” (fine bullet spray) at the police vehicle lights, but the woodcutter had succeeded in calming him down enough to come out of the house. He was busy talking to the woodcutter, “walking back towards the door with his shotgun loosely at his side”, when the fatal round of shots went off, Thinus said.
He added that the commanding officer on the scene had been outside the property at the time, then came rushing over asking fellow officers whether it was a suicide.
“I question how much control he had over the situation,” said Thinus. He added that his brother’s death occurred at around 10pm, after he had been “terrified and under siege” for almost eight hours.
An emotional friend, Danie Olivier, spoke to the Sunday Tribune en route to the funeral. It is believed that he was the first person police summoned to the scene after De Vries’s death.
“My wife Delia and I welcomed Kobus’s wife and family into our home after the tragedy.”
Olivier said he had made certain observations at the scene of his friend’s death, but would only reveal them to the newspaper after Rentia and Kobus’s relatives received the results of an independent post mortem tomorrow. The post mortem examination was conducted by Dr Reggie Perumal of Durban.
Nantes Kelder, AfriForum spokesman on crime, met the victim’s family last week.
“We are in consultation with them and will decide on the level of our participation in the investigation. We will be laying a complaint with the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) and will monitor the matter from there on.
“We have had various complaints of this nature from KwaZulu-Natal in recent times. It is a national problem. Farmers live in very real fear for their lives. It is of great concern that national police commissioner General Bheki Cele keeps reiterating his statement that policemen must ‘shoot to kill’. I don’t foresee that the situation will get any better.”
Pieter Mulder, leader of the Freedom Front Plus, has demanded a full investigation into the shooting.
“It is time for police to spell out the shooting policy again and explain it to every police member,” he told the media last week.
Tiyani Samba, a media spokesman for the ICD, confirmed that they were investigating the shooting.
“A preliminary investigation was conducted but we will not be taking over the investigation from the SAPS at this point. However, we will continue to monitor the matter. Once the findings of the state pathologist are released we will determine how to proceed.”
According to a good friend, Alida Robins, who runs the Babanango Guest House, De Vries had been contending with other problems in addition to Eskom power outages before his death.
“He was under tremendous pressure and suffering from stress,” she explained.
“He had sold his farm to the Land Claims Commission but had not been paid. People were harassing him and stealing his fences at night.
“Kobus was usually very friendly and easygoing. This whole thing is terrible. We are a community of only 14 white farmers, so it has hit us really hard. ”
Thinus said his brother had been keen to finalise the transaction on his farm and leave Babanango so he could “start living again”, with his wife in Cape Town, where they had bought a house.
“He was under a lot of stress, and I don’t think he had any confidence in the police to help out. A few years ago they arrested him for abduction after he’d caught poachers on his farm and taken them to the police station. I think the police were biased against him. But he wasn’t a rightwinger. He even organised a braai at the police station a few years ago to try to encourage co-operation. And he treated workers well. He had a soft heart,” said Thinus.
Hayden Percival, who had farmed in the Melmoth area for many years but recently sold his farm, painted a different picture of the dead farmer.
“I never met De Vries in person, but I heard plenty about him from other farmers in the area over the years,” he said.
“One story that did the rounds was his antagonism towards Mondi. He bought his farm from Mondi with the proviso that they had the right to harvest the timber on it. There was a falling out, and when the Mondi workers arrived to fell trees the next day, the tyres on their vehicles had been slashed.”
Percival said there was also a lot of conflict about a tribal boundary line on the farm. “That farm already had a history. Its previous owner was murdered on the property,” he said.
He added that farmers in the area had little faith in police justice.
“Crime is out of hand. We don’t even report it anymore because nothing is ever done.”
André Botha, who chairs Agri SA’s rural safety committee and farms in the Heidelberg area, said De Vries wasn’t well-known in the community because he was “not very sociable”.
Declining to speculate on what had happened, Botha did however say “we are fighting an uphill battle with our own sort” and that when farmers behave rashly, “we are all negatively branded, so while we are sorry for the loss of life in this instance, at this stage we have to put our trust in the police to properly investigate what happened”. - Tribune