I completed an internship with Sonke Gender Justice in Cape Town, South Africa, as a requirement of the Vienna University Human Rights MA program. During the internship I had the opportunity to be part of one of Sonke’s community mobilization teams, which aim to promote awareness of gender-based violence through organising training workshops, protest marches and rallies. They also follow specific cases, especially if there is a feeling that justice is not being done.
One such example was the brutal murder of a 21-year-old gay man David Olyn on 22 March 2014, in the rural farming town of Ceres in the Western Cape, 150km from Cape Town. Media reports indicated that a group of youths were drinking near a local dam when they were called by a man to watch him murder a ‘moffie’ (a derogatory slang term used to describe a gay or effeminate man). Forensic reports reveal that David was raped, tied up with wire and had his head smashed in with a brick, before being stamped on and set on fire. It was reported that up to seven youths may have witnessed what happened, but the crime was not reported until the next morning. There were rumours that a phone video of the crime was recorded, but it was deleted and not retrieved by police.
According to an article on May 16th on groundup.org.za – a news website that reports stories relevant to social justice from South Africa’s townships and immigrant communities – nearly 2 months after the murder, none of the alleged witnesses had been interviewed by police: ‘While the primary suspect has been arrested, we know that the police have yet to even interview these bystanders.”
Activist Kenith Abrahams, a friend of David Olyn, described a meeting held in April 2014, shortly after the murder, to discuss safety issues affecting gay and lesbian people in Ceres. It was attended by various CSOs including Sonke Gender Justice, Free Gender, the Gender Transformation Network, and Go Purple. Activists were disappointed that although police representatives were invited, after arriving five minutes late for the meeting Captain Susan Beneke, of the Ceres SAPS immediately asked to be excused, saying “We have something very important to do.”
Following the arrest of the primary suspect Christo Oncker, 28, the case has been continually postponed. Several members of the local community said that they were afraid that the case would be repeatedly postponed until it was forgotten. Sonke and other groups have been mobilizing support from the community and holding regular protests outside the court to protest the slow police investigation into the murder and put pressure on the court to respond fully and to give the case a definite trial date. There is a perception amongst the LGBTI community that LGBTI crimes are not highly prioritized due to a general mentality of homophobia in rural South African communities and within the police force itself.
On October 29th I had the opportunity to visit Ceres with colleagues from Sonke to attend a hearing for the David Olyn case. On arrival we discovered that it was to be the last hearing of the day and I took the opportunity to walk around Ceres and talk to local people with an Afrikaans-speaking colleague who had kindly agreed to translate questions and answers.
Some people did not want to discuss David’s murder, and others were willing to speak about problems with policing but did not wish to discuss LGBTI issues. Two individuals, including a woman who worked with David at the Family Food and Meat Market in Ceres, thought that the lack of police response was directly tied to David’s status as a gay man. A local shop owner described the police as ‘lazy and uninterested’ but thought it was a general problem rather than specifically due to race or LGBTI issues. Only one person I spoke to said that he believed justice was being done.
An interesting subject that came up twice was that upon graduating from training, police immediately start work in their home towns, which makes it difficult for them to be objective.
Unfortunately after waiting most of the day, we were told just before our hearing that the Magistrate, whom I and four other colleagues had seen walking around the court in the morning in seemingly good health, was sick and had to go home. The hearing was again postponed to a later date.