Waterkloof two back behind bars

In a week where one high-profile South African criminal - Rashied Staggie - was released from prison, two others have returned to prison. Reinach Tiedt and Gert van Schalkwyk, two of the notorious 'Waterkloof Four', were re-admitted to Gauteng's Zonderwater Prison on Monday. The story of how the convicted murderers were erroneously released in the first place is messy, confusing, and does South Africa's criminal justice system little credit.

The posh, largely Afrikaans suburb of Waterkloof, in Pretoria, will probably long be associated by many South Africans with two negative events: the Gupta's misuse of the military airbase there this year, and the murder of a homeless man by four schoolboys in 2003.

On the night of December 1, 2003, 16-year-olds Christoff Becker, Frikkie du Preez, Gert van Schalkwyk and Reinach Tiedt were out for a good time. The teenagers came from wealthy families, with the exception of Tiedt. They dominated the rugby teams of their schools. Du Preez, van Schalkwyk and Tiedt were all pupils at Hoƫrskool Waterkloof, where Becker's father was the principal, while Becker was at nearby Garsfontein High School.

On 1 December they took Christoff Bekker's father's car, despite the fact that all of them were too young to legally drive, and went to a party. From there, they visited a Hatfield nightclub. On the way home, they assaulted a man in Constantia Park, and then drove to Moreleta Park, where they kicked, stabbed and beat a homeless black man to death with a hammer. One of the men - Frikkie du Preez - reportedly demonstrated his "Naas Botha kicks" on the victim. They then threw stones at their victim to see if he would move.

The four young men went on with their lives as before. More than two years later, Gert van Schalkwyk, by that time a Matric student, received a phone call from Christoff Becker. Charges of murder and assault had been laid against the four.

The subsequent trial of the 'Waterkloof Four', as they were dubbed, transfixed the nation. Christoff Becker, the only one of the four to testify in court, attracted the most attention. Becker had aspirations of being a model and actor; he wore designer clothes to court and sang 'I'm Too Sexy For My Shirt', media reported. He told the court that they had attacked their victim because they had been inspired by a recent police visit to their schools urging them to help fight crime. Magistrate Len Kotze called Becker a "self-confessed liar" of "astounding arrogance".

The four attracted criticism throughout the trial for their seeming refusal to demonstrate remorse. The case's obvious racist undertones drew condemnation from all sides. "It touches the most sensitive nerve in the Afrikaner (and indeed the South African) psyche: racist in its most brutal form," Mia Swart wrote in the Mail & Guardian at the time, calling their defiance and arrogance after the fact "a disgrace to Afrikanerdom". One of the telling details during the trial was that Tiedt allegedly punched Becker after the latter called Tiedt's family "poor".

The boys' family and friends showed unwavering support. Becker's mother Mariette told You Magazine in August 2010: "My Chrissie would never do something like that." In 2009, her husband resigned from his headmaster's position at Hoƫrskool Waterkloof amidst allegations of financial irregularities totalling R5 million. Pupils' parents had asked difficult questions about how Becker was bankrolling his son's costly defence, and how the school's deputy could afford to live in the same luxury Pretoria estate as Oscar Pistorius. "Before Chrissie's court case we had a dream life," Mariette told You. "Now everything is shattered."

Throughout the trial there were concerns that the four would be given soft treatment because they were rich and white. It took three years after their murder conviction for them to be jailed, during which time they lived relatively normal lives. In November 2005 City Press reported on the lengthy holidays the four were taking, in affluent seaside resorts like Amanzimtoti, Jeffreys Bay and Ballito. The perpetually grinning van Schalkwyk was selected to play rugby for the Mpumalanga Pumas, coached by his stepfather, despite criticism.

But in 2008 they finally entered prison. Tiedt and van Schalkwyk were sent to Zonderwater; Becker and Du Preez went to Pretoria Central. Becker's mother told You that he didn't discuss prison conditions with her when she visited. A pastor at the prison told Rapport in 2010 that Becker and Du Preez were avid users of the prison gym, and that "Hulle lyk soos twee Adonisse - groot en sterk" (They look like two Adonises - big and strong).

Yet despite their 12-year jail sentences, Tiedt and van Schalkwyk would not be behind bars for long. An application from the parole board saw Magistrate Peet Johnson convert their sentences to house arrest in December 2011. After serving just over three years for murder, Tiedt and Van Schalkwyk were released from prison just before the end of 2011.

There was widespread outrage at the time, with the DA's James Selfe saying that the decision to set them free after such a short time was clearly incorrect in terms of the law. In particular, critics asked how it was possible for the parole board and the court to both overlook three aspects: that the severity of the crime might not make the offenders eligible for sentence conversion; that because all four had committed the offence, they had to be handled as a group; and that a conversion of sentence cannot take place if the prisoner in question has a certain amount of time remaining on their sentence.

Correctional Services Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said that the department was investigating to see if there was any "collusion" between members of the parole board and correctional services officers. The DA's Selfe told parliament that it smelled of a "conspiracy" to him, since the parole board had waited until just before Christmas to take their decision to a magistrate due to retire within a year.

However it happened, the magistrate's ruling was wrong: a conversion of sentence of this type can apparently not take place if the prisoner in question has more than five years left to serve, as was the case with Tiedt and Van Schalkwyk. Correctional Services appealed his decision and won - in June this year, three judges of the Pretoria High Court ruled that the men should return to prison. A subsequent application for leave to appeal failed, despite advocate Jaap Cilliers arguing that it would "ruin" the men's lives to go back to jail. In September, they were given a week to report back to prison.

EWN reported in June that at least two senior Correctional Services employees were fired after Tiedt and Van Schalkwyk were released. At least three other officials were suspended at the time. In March last year, a grilling of the Department of Correctional Services by the parliamentary portfolio committee gave some idea of the confusion within the department at that time when it came to matters of parole and prisoner release. According to the meeting minutes, chief deputy commissioner Zacharia Modise said that the department would often only find out about releases via the media, as prison officials could not be relied on to inform the department first.

During Tiedt and Van Schalkwyk's 18 months outside prison, the terms of their house arrest dictated that they had to be home between 6pm and 7am on weekdays, and on weekends could only leave the house up to 1pm. Tiedt and Van Schalkwyk also had to carry out 15 hours of community service per week, with Tiedt reportedly cleaning the Transvaal Museum and Van Schalkwyk working at the Bronkhorstspruit police station.

Nonetheless, it appears the two had been able to get on with life fairly successfully. Van Schalkwyk, the Pretoria News reported, had been planning on getting married, had started a rugby club called the Eastern Eagles, and had bought and developed a piece of property in Boschkop. He also trained with the Pumas rugby club again. Tiedt, meanwhile, was the general manager of a company called Prima that supplies flour to bread makers.

As of Monday, when they returned to the Zonderwater Prison, they will go back to serving their 12-year sentences as if they had never been released. But Pretoria News quoted Correctional Services chief deputy commissioner James Smalberger as saying that it will not be a complete do-over: "They will not have to start from scratch to prove themselves responsible enough to have visitors or phonecalls," Smalberger said. The time spent outside prison will count as time served towards their sentences, and by February 2014 all four men will have served half their sentences, and will thus be eligible for parole.

Correctional Services called on the Waterkloof Four in June this year to show that they were truly sorry during Mandela Month. Lawyer Jenny Brewis asked eNCA, "How many times do my clients have to express remorse?"

In an unfortunate choice of words, she also said: "You can keep on kicking a person when they are down and out and lying on the ground".

This column appeared in Daily Maverick.