THE story reads like something out of Precious Ramotswe’s casebook; something for the No 1 Lady Detective to discuss with her devoted secretary, Grace Makutsi, over mugs of strong rooibos tea.
It’s January 2007 and a five year old boy has disappeared from the remote Churchill village in the Northern Cape, not far from the Botswana border. People are outraged. They inform the police who, responding to community anger, arrest three elderly farmers.
Even the names of the three speak of the story’s strange remoteness: Modisaotsile Ntwagae, 65, Otlhalogantse Thebeapelo, 70, and his almost blind wife, Goitsemang Tebeapelo 67.
Since 2010 they’ve spent a total of 12 days in court, telling of their arrest and detention for the child’s disappearance. Held nearly a week without warrant they were then released on bail. But when all charges were withdrawn they sued for damages saying their detention was unlawful.
The day the child went missing Ntwagae noticed something suspicious. He left school in Standard Two, but he reads the veld as easily as you read stories about Mma Ramotswe. What he saw that day troubled him: wheelbarrow tracks and the footprints of a child.
Questioned by police he told what he had seen in the veld. Next day more police came, demanding that he hand over the child. They called in the Batlharos station commissioner who also inquired about the child. They searched Ntwagae’s home with sniffer dogs. But they did not find the boy. They took him to the Batlharos police station for interrogation then returned him to his home.
In the morning other police arrived. He says they kicked open his door and took him to his cattle kraal where they dug around but found nothing. They confiscated his cellphone and then left.
A few mornings later they came back. They grabbed him, kicked him, slapped and insulted him. One claimed he had sold the child for R85 000. He says he was handcuffed and taken to Batlharos where he was again assaulted.
Despite official denials, entries in the police occurrence book support Ntwagae’s version of events and his evidence was not seriously challenged, Judge Violet Phatshoane ruled this week.
But the worst thing about the police behaviour was this: the three elderly people were detained for kidnapping on the strength of evidence from a man with a mental age of four. This man, known to everyone as Trigger, told his neighbours about an incredible experience proving the three were to blame for the boy’s disappearance. This was the story of the weeping sack.
Trigger said one of the two elderly men sent him to fetch a sack from the other. As he walked back with the large red striped bag he felt it become so very heavy that he had to stop and rest. And when he touched the bag with his thumb he heard a child crying from deep inside. Bewitched, he was unable to open the bag to see the child. This happened twice.
Judge Phatshoane knows local fairy stories. She found plenty of evidence that Trigger’s statement was absurd – and it sounded, she said, like the children’s tale of the giant who carried the little girl Tselane over his shoulder in a sack.
According to expert court evidence Trigger was ‘profoundly intellectually disabled’, his mental age no more than five years. The judge, who observed him testifying, reached a similar conclusion and said that in relying on Trigger’s story to arrest the three farmers, the police did not act reasonably.
Arrested, no reasons given, the three only found at the police station that they were being held for kidnapping. After their release nearly a week later they were advised by the police to accept banishment to a place called Seven Miles. All three spoke of their suffering in prison that week and of the impairment of their dignity.
The judge ruled their arrest and detention ‘wrongful and unlawful’, and for their degrading treatment and appalling detention conditions she awarded R210 000 to Ntwagae and R170 000 to both the Thebeapelo’s.
It’s a story combining tragic loss, folk lore and even a Salem-style witch hunt. But while Trigger, with all his mental problems, might genuinely believe in the giant and the weeping sack, what excuse can the public offer for accepting fairy stories about corrupt officials, police included? Why, I wonder, don’t we share Mma Ramotswe’s determination to find the truth? Why don’t we just open the bag and name what we find there?