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.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.