Victor Mlotshwa was just walking along, minding his own business, when the unthinkable happened.
“There was a footpath there, and I decided to use it,” he said. “The next thing, there was a grave and then a coffin. There was nothing I could do because the other man had a gun.”
Two white men suddenly approached him and accused him of trespassing on a ranch. Before Mlotshwa could escape, he says, they forced him into a coffin nearby. Then he says they threatened to pour gasoline on him and light him on fire. One of the men captured part of the assault on video.
Toward the end of the video, which was taken down from YouTube on Tuesday but is preserved on social media accounts, one of the men tries to close the coffin over Mlotshwa's head while he helplessly wails. It is unclear what happened after that. But the resurfacing of the video has given Mlotshwa a chance at justice for his tormentors, almost three months after he says the incident took place.
“He didn't have evidence to prove what had happened, it's only two weeks back that he decided to open the case. He didn't think anyone would believe him,” Mlotshwa's brother, Thobile, told local media.
South African police were able to track down Willem Oosthuizen and Theo Martins Jackson, and the two appeared together in court Wednesday on charges of kidnapping and assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm. A judge decided that their trial would be postponed until January. They will remain in prison on remand.
At the court in Middelburg, in the eastern province of Mpumalanga, Mlotshwa sat just one row behind Oosthuizen and Jackson.
The court was packed to capacity. Members of South Africa's main political parties have lined up behind Mlotshwa. The Economic Freedom Fighters in particular have taken up his cause and rallied hundreds of people outside the courtroom.
“This humiliation can be based on nothing else but his blackness, which means it is in actual fact a humiliation of black people as a whole,” the EFF said in a statement. They have called for mass protests at the ranch where the incident occurred.
Whites make up less than 10 percent of South Africa's population but remain in control of much of the country's economy, which they all but dominated through decades of apartheid. In the years since that system of racial segregation ended, little has been done to address systemic inequalities. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has repeatedly been taken to task for the corrupt practices of many of its leaders, and protests have roiled the country. The president, Jacob Zuma, is under investigation for numerous improprieties and has already been forced to pay back money that he embezzled to the government.
The EFF and the Democratic Alliance parties have positioned themselves as alternatives, and both were able to garner significant support in recent municipal elections. In a country where political rhetoric centers on claims of standing up for the downtrodden, Mlotshwa has now emerged as a symbolic prize. The ANC appears to have won.
A local ANC youth league leader stood with Mlotshwa on a stage at a protest in Middelburg on Wednesday and said the EFF was “political prostitutes” and that Mlotshwa belongs to the ANC.