In This Review

These Are Not Gentle People: Two Dead Men. Forty Suspects. The Trial That Broke a Small South African Town
These Are Not Gentle People: Two Dead Men. Forty Suspects. The Trial That Broke a Small South African Town
By Andrew Harding
MacLehose Press, 2020, 288 pp.

This disturbing narrative relates the 2016 deaths of two Black laborers at the hands of several dozen white farmers and the flawed, three-year trial that subsequently took place in a small town an hour and a half from Johannesburg. Harding is an unintrusive narrator and allows the rich cast of characters to tell their own versions of the story. The details of their accounts accumulate inexorably into a searing indictment of contemporary South Africa. The casual racism of the farmers and the miserable precariousness of their Black employees are depressingly familiar, as are the divisions and resentments between Black and white communities three decades after the end of apartheid. The only thing that seems to unite South Africans is pessimism about the future. Harding’s story also delivers a devastating verdict on the country’s institutions. The leading South African political parties lurked in the background of the trial, eager to score points from the proceedings with populist demagoguery. No one involved in the case trusted the police or the justice system to do the right thing. And incompetence permeated all state agencies: the assaulted laborers were allowed to die after waiting for hours without treatment, an indignity compounded by the fact that the coroner, the lawyers, and the judge consistently confused the identities of the two victims during the trial.