As the sun set behind the jagged Langeberg mountains, Rosina Cloete extinguished a cigarette in the ashtray on the couch next to her, then stood up and immediately lit another on the gas stove across the small, dank room. The wall behind the stove was blackened with smoke and mold. Rosina left the house, discarded her cigarette at the end of the block, and set off up a steep hill to Cedras Prins’ house, hoping to find out where her husband was.
It was March 27, 2015, the end of the harvest in Ashton, a rural agricultural town in the fertile Breede River Valley in South Africa’s Western Cape. At this time of year, it was common practice for locals from the dilapidated townships and informal settlements on either side of the “white part of town,” as the center of Ashton was still generally known, to descend the hillside toward the region’s rolling vineyards and expansive fruit farms. There, they’d collect a bag or two of the surplus fruit that was otherwise left to rot on the fringes of the farms or used for animal feed. Though technically this often meant trespassing, it was a widely-accepted tradition that stretched back to the 17th century, when thousands of slaves from Asia and other parts of Africa toiled in these same fields, fueling the burgeoning economy of the Dutch Cape colony.
A couple of hours earlier that afternoon, Colin Cloete had decided that the ferocious midday heat had dissipated sufficiently for him to join this annual fruit gathering expedition. He’d slung a small, tattered gym bag over his shoulder and told Rosina he’d be back by sundown with some tomatoes for the family’s pot.
Rosina knew that Colin, unemployed for almost two years, never left the house for long; with nowhere to be and little money to spend, there were few reasons to linger outside the home. He should have been back by now, and his family, having not eaten since morning, was hungry. A friend of Colin’s lived in a ramshackle breezeblock house just next to the Cloete household. He said he’d heard gunshots while gathering fruit and pointed Rosina in the direction of Prins for further details.
Children play on the street near Cedras Prins’ home in Ashton. All photos by Shaun Swingler
On reaching the top of the hill, Rosina found Prins slumped against the wall outside his house, sitting on an upturned water bucket, his face bloodied and swollen. Prins told Rosina that he’d last seen Colin and a few other men from the neighborhood on a tomato farm that belonged to a young and affluent local farmer named Colin Conradie.
Prins had left the others and pushed his luck by going to pick some naartjies (mandarins) on a prime commercial plot beyond the tomatoes, where he told Rosina he’d been caught by the farm supervisor, Jerome Erasmus, who held him captive until the farmer showed up and started beating him for trespassing. Prins said that while he was being beaten, he’d heard the farmer and the supervisor talking about other men that had been caught on the wrong side of the commonly-respected boundaries in their fruit gathering; Prins assumed Colin was one of them.
Increasingly concerned, Rosina gathered a few family members from her house and went to look for her husband in the fields. But after a couple of hours combing the long, neat rows of vines and verdant fruit trees, it was pitch black. The search party gave up and went home.
Just before dawn the next morning, Rosina rose from a restless night and returned to Conradie’s farm, this time with local police detective Jonathon Franse, whom she’d cajoled into coming with her. Franse knocked on the farm supervisor’s door and asked if he’d seen Colin.
Erasmus, a small, lean, bespectacled man with a gentle smile, led Franse and Rosina down a dirt track to the far end of a nearby vineyard adjoining Conradie’s tomato farm, where he said he’d seen Colin being held by the farmer’s son, while the farmer himself was still a couple of hundred feet away laying into Prins.
When Erasmus and the others arrived at the spot where he’d last seen Colin, his bag was lying on its side on a patch of grass with a few plump, ripe tomatoes spilling out of the top. The group began to skirt the edge of the vineyard and not more than a hundred yards from the abandoned bag, Franse spotted something among one of the rows of vines. He ducked under the metal wires which the vines were trained along and there, in the clearing, face down on the dry, cracked soil, was a body. Franse called Rosina over. “Is this your husband?” he asked. Rosina couldn’t bear to look; she already knew it was Colin.