Photography by Brian Moody
On May 26, 1997, Collin Ketshabile, an 18 year-old from Soweto, took part in an armed robbery on the Johannesburg home of Gert and Joan van Blerk. Collin was later imprisoned for the crime.
A year later, in a separate incident, the van Blerks’ only child, Michael, was shot dead outside their home, aged 41. The van Blerks and Collin have since reconciled through the help of Khulisa, a not-for-profit South African organisation that works with juvenile offenders.
Joan van Blerk
It was a rainy Monday. I was alone in the house working at the computer when two men suddenly appeared and grabbed my hands. They had knives and a gun so I knew I had to stay calm. They tied me up and ransacked the house taking everything of value. Collin wanted the ring off my finger, but when I couldn’t get it off he shouted, “I’ll cut your finger off then.” I nearly died with fright, and yanked the ring off so hard that it tore my skin.
After an hour and a half they left, and I reached for the panic button. In the following weeks I cracked completely. Terrified of being alone, I felt real hatred towards these people. As far as I was concerned Collin was trash. I could easily have killed him. I didn’t know I had so much hate in me.
Then, a year later, my world collapsed completely when my son Michael was murdered on our doorstep. He was shot in the face as he sat in the car, about to set off on holiday with my husband. Gert was also shot and seriously wounded. As I was cradling my dead son in the car, the paramedics gave Gert emergency treatment, but I wondered if he’d ever thank them for saving his life.
I had now lost my only child, and my husband was paralysed and unable to speak. If it hadn’t been for nursing Gert through the next few years, I’d have given up altogether, but the incredible progress he made with speech therapy and reiki sessions gave me some small hope.
Then one day, out of the blue, Elza from Khulisa knocked at my door and started talking about prisoners. I didn’t want to know until she mentioned that Collin, the boy who had robbed me in 1997, wouldn’t be able to get on with his life unless I forgave him. So I agreed to meet him. People think once a criminal always a criminal, but if victims choose to forgive their attackers, I believe the community should too.
We first met in February 2003, in front of a packed room at a ceremony in Leeuwkorp Prison. It was a public apology from four offenders to their victims. I was extremely nervous, but when we met I just saw this nice young man who had nothing to do with the person who’d broken into my life. They were two separate people, and I’ve kept them as two separate people ever since. Collin said he was very sorry for what he’d done and I told him that I forgave him. Then he gave me a bunch of exquisite roses. I said if he was ever in the neighbourhood he should drop in for a cup of tea. To my surprise he turned up one Saturday afternoon a few weeks later to tell me about his studies. Things between us are good now.
We go together into prisons to talk about forgiveness and restorative justice. At first this was all about helping Collin – I didn’t think it could possibly help me. But I was wrong. Now, for the first time since Michael died, I have peace of mind. For the first time I feel OK. I used to get so angry thinking of the things that I’d lost in the robbery, but now I don’t. When you forgive someone, that anger which you never thought would go just evaporates. What’s gone is gone. But some things are beyond forgiveness. Killing Michael is beyond forgiveness. Even if his killer showed remorse I would never forgive.
I was brought up in Soweto with an alcoholic father who physically abused me. We were very poor, and as the eldest it was my job to get money. So, like most of my friends, I used to come into the white areas of Johannesburg and go housebreaking. I didn’t hate white people, I just needed the money.
It was a Monday morning when we broke into the van Blerks’ home. I was with a friend and we thought no one was there. When we saw Mrs van Blerk we were scared so we grabbed her, tied her hands behind her back and dragged her upstairs. Having ransacked the place we bagged up all the most valuable possessions and ran for it.
I was caught, convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. I knew there was this bad thing inside me that I needed to change, but I didn’t know how. Then in prison I met Khulisa and started doing personal development work, looking at the consequences of my crime. I was soon responsible for the health awareness programmes, and after four years and eight months I was released. I was then selected as one of the participants of Khulisa’s Community Integration Programme, in which ex-offenders are trained in self-development. By now I’d changed my behaviour, and having learnt about restorative justice, I needed to meet the woman I’d attacked to prove to her that I was a changed man.
On the day of our meeting I was terrified because I didn’t know how Mrs van Blerk would react when she saw me. When we met, I explained that at the time of the crime I didn’t know what I was doing. She said she understood and she told me she forgave me. I didn’t expect her to forgive me that easily.
Today, life is still hard. I live in Soweto where many people are involved in crime, but at least the older people now respect me, and I feel good about my work with Khulisa. There is nothing that can break me now because I have Mrs van Blerk’s forgiveness. Nothing can take that away.