Preacher's murder remains a mystery

Published Nov 5, 2008


The assassination of Professor Johan Heyns 14 years ago on Wednesday remains one of the country's greatest murder mysteries.

One of South Africa's best known church leaders, Heyns was shot dead while playing cards with his grandchildren on Guy Fawkes Night 1994.

Moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church at the time, Heyns, 67, was shot at close range with a heavy calibre rifle in his Waterkloof Ridge home.

Heyns was sitting with his wife Renee and three grandchildren, then aged two, eight and 11, when the bullet came through the living room window.

The bullet that killed him instantly was fired while hundreds of firecrackers were going off.

Police believe he was shot with a hunting rifle because no empty shells were found - only the copper mantle of the bullet.

Police followed up several leads over the years including the possible involvement of right-wingers, but nothing came of them.

Heyns' widow sold the home shortly after the shooting. At the time she said she could not feel hate because there was no one to hate.

Nor could she forgive anyone, as there was no one to forgive.

"It must have been a very sick person who did this," she said.

One of Heyns' sons, Professor Christof Heyns, who is the Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria, said as far as he knew the police were no longer actively investigating the case.

"We have, in any event, not heard from them in years," he said.

Heyns said his mother is "in good health and spirits and is active".

"She has a close circle of friends who meet socially on a regular basis and often go on holidays together."

He said his brother's two children, who were with their grandfather 14 years ago when he was shot have managed to move on.

Two of the children are studying engineering at universities in Pretoria and Stellenbosch and the other is still at school.

"I would say in one way or another we have all moved on. For the first five years or so, there was not a day I did not think about it in one way or another. Time has changed that, although every now and again it hits me out of the blue and still takes my breath away.

"Something like this makes you much more sensitive to the plight of others - and aware of the limited time that we have to make a difference," Heyns said.

He said his mother helped counsel a great many other people after the murder, using her own experience to aid others in moving forward.

Heyns finds solace in his work.

"I throw myself into my work. To be creative offers an opportunity to try and make sense of a country which asks so much of its people."

Heyns Seniornr was an independent-minded and outspoken reformist and his murder was met with shock.

Shortly after the assassination, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: "As the first national moderator of the NG Kerk to call into question the church's support for apartheid, he had a major part in preparing the church and the Afrikaner community for change."

He added that Heyns played an important role in promoting peace during the transition of democracy.

Former president Nelson Mandela was also outraged by the Heyns murder. John Carlin in his book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, wrote: "Heyns was his favourite kind of Afrikaner. Morally and physically brave, honest to the core, he had the courage late in life to admit the errors of his ways."

Three days after the assassination, Mandela announced a crackdown on the far right.

Shortly after the killing the police launched an around-the-clock investigation. They thought they had a breakthrough when former reconnaissance regiment member Thys de Villiers - also know as Kaalvoet Thysie because he never wore shoes - was arrested on other charges. It was believed that he was also linked to the Heyns murder.

An alleged associate of De Villiers, Hechie Horn, claimed De Villiers told him that he had shot Heyns. De Villiers was never charged with the Heyns murder.

In 1997 a murder accused in another case claimed the rifle used to kill Heyns was thrown into the Hartbeespoort Dam.

Special arrangements had to be made for the sluice gates to be closed but, after three days of diving missions, the search was called off.

Police spokesperson Director Sally de Beer said that the docket into the murder of Heyns has been filed away.

"This does not mean that it cannot be reopened.

"Should any new evidence come to light then the case can be reopened," she said, adding that none of the original investigators into the murder were still working in the police service.

Heyns was clearly a son of the soil who lived and died in Pretoria.

Through his actions he gained wide acceptance from both sides, but he paid the ultimate price.

However, his name may live on as church colleagues and members of the University of Pretoria's faculty of theology recently submitted a proposal that a street in Pretoria be named after him.

Those who knew him say he may have frowned at such public display, but on the other hand it may be fitting that a man, who played such a role in the process of reconciliation, could also play a bridging role in his death.

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