Colleen Bantjes, 67, and her husband Fanie, 68, left Joburg in 2004 to open a bed and breakfast in the fishing village of Yzerfontein, north of Cape Town. They felt very safe, far away from Joburg and its locked doors, burglar alarms and sirens.
One day in January 2005, the couple drove to the West Coast Fossil Park in Langebaan. On their way out, they saw a man who looked like a security guard standing at the intersection of the Fossil Park entrance and the deserted R45 road. They stopped at the intersection to make a phone call.
Suddenly Colleen noticed a person standing by the window on the driver’s side and pointing a gun at Fanie. Frightened, she alerted her husband, who got out of the car, handed his phone to the man and tried to grab the gun. The phone fell and Fanie didn’t get the gun.
A committed Christian, Colleen prayed for protection. “I don’t think I’ve ever prayed that hard in my life”.
Her husband eventually managed to make his way to where the car had rolled – because he had forgotten to put the brake on – and she shouted at him to get in so they could try to escape.
“He jumped into the car, but in my state of panic I wanted to help him drive, and I interfered with the gears and we stalled.”
Colleen suddenly realised that the man was now on her side of the car. She looked straight at him as he pointed the gun straight at her head and pulled the trigger.
The bullet made a hole in the window right next to her temple. Colleen instinctively held her head. There was blood everywhere. But she didn’t understand why she couldn’t feel any pain. Later they found the bullet in the roof of the car, above the visor.
“I truly believe (God) put a shield between me and that bullet, because it was at such close range. As I say, the hole in the window was next to my temple.”
At exactly that moment, a policeman who was coming off duty – and who had decided to go home using a back road – drove down the deserted road and came over the hill just in time to witness the incident and to help Colleen’s husband to catch the man. The officer didn’t have handcuffs, but he found some nylon rope lying in the veld, tied the attacker with it and called for help.
The police and the paramedics who came to the couple’s aid said: “A miracle has happened here today. You should be dead.”
Colleen did not have any ill-feelings towards the attacker. “I started praying for this young man… It was such an unnatural reaction to someone who has just tried to kill you.”
After going to hospital, where the staff used tweezers to pick hundreds of fragments of glass out of her face, ears, neck and shoulders, Colleen and Fanie went home.
“We had no fear at all… We sat in our lounge that night with the doors open, like we do every night in Yzerfontein.”
Shortly afterwards, Colleen and her husband dropped off a Bible for the man, Brian Pienaar, then in his early twenties, at Malmesbury Prison, where he was detained while awaiting trial for attempted hijacking and attempted murder.
“Then I received a letter from him (in February 2006), thanking us for the Bible and asking me to forgive him for what he had done… I wrote back to him saying that I had forgiven him and that I was praying for him.”
Soon after that he was given a 23-year sentence, Brian took part in a restorative justice programme, which was followed by a ceremony where he publicly asked Colleen and Fanie for forgiveness.
Brian continued to write to Colleen and Fanie after the ceremony. In one letter, from September 2008, Brian thanked them for the pyjamas they sent him. He also shared his excitement at passing his matric exams and promised to send the couple a copy of his results.
A few months later, Brian wrote to ask them for art supplies and to tell them that his good behaviour had earned him a job in the kitchen at his new home, Goodwood Prison.
He also expressed his happiness at receiving two visits, from an aunt and his cousin, as well as his disappointment that his mother had broken many promises to come and see him.
Just two months after that, in December 2011, Brian wrote with devastating news: his mother had died, apparently of liver disease. He said he cried for a week.
“The thing that I regret the most is that people always told me to phone my mother just to ask how she was doing, but unfortunately, I was too stubborn… I didn’t phone her for more than two years. I didn’t even know she was sick.”
RIGHTING THE WRONGS
“One thing that I learned from the death of my mother is to make right the wrong that you did to other people because you don’t know if you’ll ever get another chance to say sorry or to say I love you because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed to anyone,” he continued.
“Therefore I want to say sorry once again for what I did in 2005. I know you forgave me a long time ago already, but after losing my mother I now know how does it feel to lose someone close to you and it made me realise how your children would have felt if something went wrong on that fateful day.”
He also wished Colleen a happy birthday: “Thank you for being the loving ‘mom’ that you are.”
Colleen says Brian’s letters show he has great potential.
“He writes poems, he thinks deeply about things.”
One of Brian’s poems is dedicated to children on the Cape Flats, where he grew up, surrounded by alcoholism, abuse, gangs and crime.
The poem is about how the drug tik (methamphetamine) seems like a friend, but is actually an enemy destroying lives slowly.
In Who’s To Blame? Brian argues that youngsters who get into trouble are just victims of adults who are out to make money.
The kid is not the owner of the illegal shebeen/or the manufacturer of the deadly methamphetamine/Nor is the kid the big drug dealer in town/ who’s breaking our friends and families down.
So next time if you want someone to blame/First ask yourself, “Who’s running the game?”
Brian also wrote an essay called Second Chances, in which he says that no person is beyond redemption.
Colleen believes that Brian truly wants to change and that he will come out of prison a different person.
Unfortunately, obstacles sometimes tend to threaten Brian’s rehabilitation.
Colleen reads a letter Brian wrote about his stay at Brandvlei Prison.
In Afrikaans, Brian describes how one of the offenders in his cell stabbed a warden and how the prison officials allegedly retaliated by physically abusing the inmates every day for a month.
Colleen believes that abuse by warders can make the inmates bitter and angry and undermine their efforts to change.
With her husband’s support, Colleen continues to encourage Brian, who is now at Tswelopele Correctional Centre in Kimberley.
Some friends have told Colleen that she is “crazy” to maintain contact with Brian, but she feels her faith compels her to help him.
Colleen says she has learnt a lot from the whole experience. She has learnt how to accept someone who is different from her, but most of all, she has learnt about forgiveness, which has freed her from a life of fear. -Saturday Star
Hazel Meda is a journalist with the Wits Justice Project, which investigates miscarriages of justice and is based in the Department of Journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand.