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Andrew Harding's latest book is 'These Are Not Gentle People'

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next story takes us to a country that is deeply divided by race, even after it established a multiracial democracy. South Africa this week is mourning Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was one of the leaders in the fight against apartheid decades ago. More than a quarter-century after its end, the journalist Andrew Harding finds a country divided between Black and white, rich and poor, urban and rural.

ANDREW HARDING: And indeed, when you move into the cities in South Africa, there are plenty of success stories. This is still a very, you know, a very vibrant country. And it's possible to get out of bed and travel around the country and feel very optimistic about it. But it is - it's that land of deep, deep contrasts and deep inequalities.

INSKEEP: Andrew Harding reports for the BBC across Africa. He also writes books, including one about a double murder almost six years ago in a rural area. It is called "These Are Not Gentle People." In a South African region called the Free State, a few dozen white farmers own land. Black people work on them as laborers. One day, two Black men, who went by the names of Simon and Samuel, showed up at the farm of a white man. He says they wanted to rob him. Others think they were demanding unpaid wages. What is certain is that the farmer pressed an alarm button, summoning help from white neighbors.

HARDING: And about 50 white farmers - men and their sons - came charging across the fields in their pickup trucks, most of them armed. And they went and chased and hunted for these two Black men, and they found them pretty quickly. And they arrested them, essentially, in the corner of a field and then over the next hour or two proceeded very methodically and very brutally to beat those two men.

INSKEEP: How severe was the beating?

HARDING: The beating was severe enough to give both men multiple injuries all over their bodies and particularly traumatic head injuries, so much so that both men lost consciousness. Both men were then thrown into the back of a police car, which then drove for a few hundred yards over a bumpy field and then onto a smooth road into town, where they were met by an ambulance, transported to a hospital and then, over the course of the next few hours, were both pronounced dead.

INSKEEP: So we have a kind of citizen's arrest that becomes an incident of beating and torture, ends with police having custody of the men. But they're dead at the end. What did authorities do with this set of facts?

HARDING: Well, there was almost immediately an outcry, a sense that this surely was a racial murder and that the white farmers involved should be arrested and put on trial as quickly as possible. But it was almost impossible for the police initially to make any headway because of a kind of wall of silence from the white farmers who were led to believe that they could get away with this. The white farmers, most of whom were related, felt that it was in their best interests to say nothing. And it took months for the police to break that silence.

INSKEEP: How did they do that finally?

HARDING: Well, what happened in particular was that they managed to hack into the mobile phones of some of the younger farmers. They unlocked some WhatsApp messages and WhatsApp recordings in which some of these men, shortly after the attack, boasted and described what they'd been doing. And with those confessions, if you like, they went and arrested a number of the farmers and then essentially cut a deal with some of those farmers who'd basically been found guilty by virtue of what they'd left on those WhatsApp messages. And they ended up putting six men on trial, whereas about a dozen men in all had been proven and eventually admitted to taking part in the assaults.

INSKEEP: That sounds like a pretty devastating case against those who were put on trial. And they were put on trial in a system that is led by a Black-majority government. What was the result?

HARDING: This is where the story showed the institutional rot because, at every stage of the investigation and then in court, everything let Simon and Samuel down. And in the end, all of the farmers were acquitted of murder. They were found guilty of grievous bodily harm, of aggravated assault, but none of them was given any jail time whatsoever. The problem for the prosecution is that the forensic evidence, which was at the heart of the prosecution's case, was flawed. The original doctors who inspected Simon and Samuel's bodies made basic errors of fact and of medicine, and the whole chain of evidence was contaminated by a mixture of incompetence and managerial and institutional failures which enabled the defense to pick apart the prosecution's case and particularly the extraordinary matter of law which was brought up by the defense. Could it be that the two men died not from the beatings that rendered them unconscious, but from the fact that they spent a few minutes in the back of a police car being driven over a bumpy field? On that basis, the judge found the men not guilty of murder.

INSKEEP: Meaning that incompetence left a lot of room for reasonable doubt.

HARDING: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Why did you call the book "These Are Not Gentle People"?

HARDING: This was actually a phrase that emerged from one of the key characters, the wife of one of the accused, who used this phrase to me, these are not gentle people. She just said to me one day, talking about her neighbors, about her friends, about the people who had been involved that night in the brutal beating of Simon and Samuel. And it seemed to me a phrase, an ambiguous phrase that could capture something of modern South Africa's struggles.

INSKEEP: Do you think that if you spoke with some of the men who were involved in the attack that night and the killing that night, they would agree - we are not gentle people; we don't want to be; we can't be?

HARDING: In fact, when they were in court arguing for a light sentence, they cited the book and the title and said it wasn't true - they were gentle people. And it struck me, as they argued that, that this was a community that had not been forced to confront what it had done and that was still, to some extent, in denial about what was wrong with society in South Africa, particularly in their community, and what hadn't changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA'S "DAWN")

INSKEEP: Andrew Harding's latest book is called "These Are Not Gentle People." Thank you so much.

HARDING: Well, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA'S "DAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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