SA Courts: urgently seeking garden gnome experts

In August 2008, an angry 18 year-old schoolboy in Krugersdorp killed a fellow pupil with an ornamental sword, bought by his father 3 or 4 years previous to the incident. The schoolboy, Morne Harmse, also attempted to kill a three other people during what some papers referred to as his “rampage”, including another pupil and two gardeners.

The reason I’m writing about this nearly a year after the incident is that sentencing is due to occur this coming Monday (see end of post for a correction of this date), and the newspapers are reporting that “expert witnesses”, including “occult crime specialists”, will be called to testify before sentencing. At this point, you’d be justified in wondering what the hell an “occult crime specialist” is, and how the testimony of one could possibly add value in a case like this (or any case, for that matter).

One hypothesis could be that there are occult forces which commit crimes, and that these specialists are adept at solving these crimes and bringing the perpetrators to justice – like Bill Murray did in Ghostbusters, for example. But we all know that’s fiction, right? Another possibility is that some confused individuals believe in ghosts, demons, fairies, the healing power of crystals and the like, and furthermore allow those beliefs to lead them into irrational (and sometimes criminal) actions, such as hacking people up with swords. Such people certainly exist, but if one can be an “expert” in them and their behaviour, then surely the sort of expertise required is simply that of understanding various pathologies, rather than being a so-called “expert” in the exact lore and fantasies that could be involved? Granted, some level of this sort of expertise might be useful in terms of offering therapy, where one can discuss the motivational structures of the false beliefs with the confused individual, but are they useful or necessary in sentencing?

In the case of Morne Harmse – as in most allegedly “occult” crimes in South Africa – one man stands proudly above the rest: rent-seeker extraordinaire Kobus Jonker, who founded the Occult-Related Crime Unit in the South African Police Service in 1992, and who has since then made a living – while achieving mini-celebrity status amongst some god-botherers – pretending that there is something metaphysical going on when confused people do bad things involving candles, goats, swords or anything generally considered “occult”. I know that these people are confused, because I’ve actually read the Satanic Bible, and when these cases hit the news it’s usually quite clear that the “Satanists” have not – and that Jonker most likely has not, either. For one thing, the Satanic Bible expressly condemns killing animals for ritual purposes, while also making it clear that if you want a person to die, the most you should do is to place a curse on them.

Having said that, we are talking about confused people, so it’s entirely possible that some poor kid could swallow the version of Satanism (or the typically unspecified “occult”) promoted by Jonker (and the Christian church), and do bad things under the assumed banner of Satanism (or some other claimed set of beliefs). I’ll get back to that, but for the moment, please note that a strategy immediately presents itself in terms of minimising crimes committed under the assumed sanction of something like Satanism, and that is to talk about it more, and to get people to realise that it doesn’t involve killing sentient beings. But that may cost Jonker his livelihood, and will also undermine the competition that allows the more benign metaphysical-loads-of-crap (like Christianity) to flourish, seeing as one of their selling points is that they protect you from demons and damnation.

Back to Harmse: is there any evidence that he believed in the occult, or that he thought he was practising some Satanic ritual, thereby necessitating the services of an “expert” in the occult? No. Harme is quoted as saying “there had often been talk between the boys in his group that they should do something to make an impression at the school to make the other children take notice of them”, and that they wanted to do something with “impressive consequences”.

A shocking tale of High-school kids seeking attention!

Given that this story has been reported as involving occultism on the part of the kids, you may think I’ve left out some crucial details. What about the masks, you ask? What about the fact that Harmse cited the band Slipknot as a favourite, and that his mask was inspired by those worn by the band?

Well, two things: one, rebellious and attention-seeking kids, as Harmse self-confessedly is, most likely listen to plenty of aggressive, counter-cultural, attention-seeking music, and we don’t have any good evidence for violent music or computer games (or pornography, for that matter) making people more likely to do the things expressed in those media.

And second, it’s not as if Harmse and his mates suddenly decided to put on their masks and go on a rampage: they had planned their attention-seeking day in advance, and swords and masks were but one element of their plan. Harmse’s friend Marco was to bring a “rolling bomb” (whatever that is), which he did, although the bomb turned out to be a fake.

IOL reports that in “his admission of guilt, Harmse said that before the incident he and a group of friends discussed the various methods they would choose to use to conduct a school massacre. Harmse planned to use the ninja sword hanging on his bedroom wall”. In other words, it’s what he had available to him – it wasn’t part of some ritual, and I can find no quote attributed to the kids that provides a shred of evidence that they thought their behaviour related to the occult.

They may well think so now, though, and that’s a shame. Because instead of reflecting on what they did in terms of simple or more typical motivations like anger, attention-seeking, and alienation, they may now start thinking more about nonsense metaphysics, and that could potentially lead them to further confusion and irrationality down the road. As for the courts, and their “expert witnesses”, it’s truly a shame that our judicial system is encouraging this sort of bullshit. And if this case requires the testimony of an “occult expert” like Jonker, despite the fact that there appears to be no connection to the occult, does it not also require the services of expert witnesses in garden gnomes, just in case they had something to do with it?

EDIT: I misread – sentencing was due to occur yesterday, June 15, but has now been postponed to August 31 to allow these expert witnesses time to interview Harmse and his co-accused.

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  • I did this at the time of the incident (ish) with the “Community Leader” (read: “Pastor”) Pierre Eksteen arguing that Slipknot was “bad satanic music” which led Harmse to set off on his brief hacking spree.

    I fully recognised then (as I do now) that the media had run with a hugely unneccessary sensationalist angle on the story. What I didn’t spot was that the courts are seemingly doing the same. This is of concern to me.

    My post from last August: http://6000.co.za/2008/08/25/heavy-metal-knot-to-blame/

    • Thanks for the reminder of your post – am thinking of writing an op-ed on this, and may be in touch re. using some of your points. Indeed, of great concern that that this nonsense is being taken seriously in court.

  • I hear you loud and clear, Jacques. We have some of the best psychologists in the world, trained to understand the motivations for such actions. These people have actually attempted a scientific method in their approach (though Popper would not call science at all).

    I find this is also occurring when issues of medical and biological advances or procedures: where instead of getting experts in bioethics, we get the loudest pastor or the a foam-at-the-mouth mullah instead to comment.

    It is disgusting that our legal system considers this mountebank to be an “expert” on anything which could actually aid our society. Well put as always.

  • Deon

    The similarities between this case and the Columbine massacre are uncanny.
    Planned well in advance. Alienated and marginalized students.
    Possibly the only differences being that automatic weapons were not involved and the planning did not take as long.
    But seriously occultism? In the court?

    “The Devil made me do it…”
    “666”

    – Inscribed by Terry Pratchett on a signed copy of ‘Good Omens’ that I own..

  • I am an English teacher and it just hurts me to see every time something like this is reported in the papers. In this case it was a sword but in most High school killing incidents students have a gun in their hand. It still baffles me as to where do these lay their hands on such high end sophisticated weapons.

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  • J Munkay

    While I agree that labeling violent acts such as those committed by Harmse as ‘satanism’ is simply ridiculous, I would however warn against simplifying all crimes attributed to ‘invisible forces’ to pathologies or ‘false beliefs’. I am not accusing you of claiming such — but your article provides a good springboard into the far more complex arena of policing ‘invisible crimes’ – an arena which cannot simply be attributed to some kind of psychic confusion or pathology. If we are ever to understand and fight incidents such as muti murder, bewitchment, witch stoning and the like, we need to look beyond individual psychologies (although of course not completely disregard them) and try and examine the broader structure of belief which gives rise to such incidents – a belief structure which attributes invisible forces as having real material effects, even to the extent that they can cause misfortune and harm. If we fail to do this, and simply write off such incidents as the result of superstitious nonsense, we are dangerously close to reiterating the same sort of logic spouted out by colonial authorities and the apartheid state – “they are confused, depraved, backward; they need to be shown the light whether they like it or not”.

    (Of course I am not arguing that Harmse’s case falls even remotely within this category).

    Imputations of witchcraft crime in South Africa show the limits of a rigidly ‘rationalist’ deployment of justice. Our justice system only regards as criminal incidents in which material evidence exists for prosecution — quite rightly you might say. It cannot, for instance, prosecute someone who places a curse on another (by burying a root in the victim’s yard, for instance). But ff the perpetrator believes s/he has genuinely cursed his/her neighbour, and if the victim believes s/he has been genuinely cursed, are we to posit both to be psychologically unstable or confused? As far as our legal order is concerned, there is no crime to speak of here — and this has led many who fear bewitchment to perceive the government as leaving them exposed to a very real source of harm, even as sympathetic to witches (a view emboldened both by a piece of 1957 apartheid legislation still in operation which criminalises accusations of witchcraft but not witchcraft itself, and by the police’s protection of witches in safe houses). It is no surprise, therefore, that many have taken it upon themselves to dispense the justice they believe government has failed to deliver by attacking suspected witches and muti murderers in their communities.

    We cannot cast such crimes as being merely the result of backwards superstition or an addled psychology: there is a chasm of understanding which must be bridged. They are not simply ‘false beliefs’ in need of psychological remedy — would one prescribe psychiatry to the considerable (by some estimates 60-80% of South Africans) who visit traditional healers, for instance? Certainly not. Scholar Adam Ashforth found that those who visit traditional healers see the need for divination deriving from the “unassailable conviction” that the forces that shape life are not perceptible through ordinary human faculties. Again, then, we are dealing with an entire worldview, a constellation of belief. The failure to understand that ‘invisible crimes’ are genuinely regarded by many as very real threats to their existential security only aggravates the perception that mob justice is the only recourse to right a (metaphysical) wrong.

    (On your point about the ‘experts’, you are spot on. Jonker is a disgusting opportunist, ready to pronounce witchcraft and satanism whenever given the slightest opportunity. His ‘expertise’ was called upon in the case of Adam, the dismembered torso discovered in the Thames River in 2001, along with another charlatan, Credo Mutwa. They both proclaimed Adam to have been the victim of muti murder, despite the torso’s mutilation bearing little resemblance to the practice (muti murders do not generally involve decapitation, for instance). It seems that exploiting our ignorance and fear of ‘the occult’ (that most dubious of catch-all phrases) can prove a profitable career path.)

    • Plenty to ponder there, thanks. As you clearly noticed, I was more interested in a polemic regarding this particular case, so freely confess to having potentially taken liberties with the more subtle issues you allude to. The thing I’m certainly in agreement with you on (which is a subtext of your comment, even if not explicit) is that if we care about pragmatic outcomes, like reducing or eliminating these sorts of crimes, it does no good to adopt a reductionist attitude to their causality and social role. Thanks for the reminder.