The perfect life
Sitting comfortably on the plushest extreme of the world’s most unequal society‚ the Van Bredas were the picture of success: theirs was a boundless universe of ski holidays‚ perfect white teeth‚ private schools and global property ownership.
Their luxury home was on the De Zalze golf estate near Stellenbosch‚ itself a microcosm of South Africa’s apartheid space configurations.
Here were impenetrable boundaries around vast green spaces that saw young white men in their twenties playing golf on a Wednesday afternoon while women of colour in uniform followed them around with canapés and champagne.
A single cosmos flower in a garden might find three men tending to it – until it was time for them to pass back through the security gates and head home to township living.
It was here‚ among 420 units housing 1‚000 people‚ that Martin van Breda sought to quarantine his family from the “danger out there” when they returned from their time on the Sunshine Coast in Australia (where they left behind a veritable palace now on the market for a whopping R25-million).
De Zalze leaves nothing to chance: there are directives on what type of roof you can have and what plants you can grow.
Apart from a rumour a few years back that criminals were “dressing in black‚ covering themselves in black bags and pretending to be rubbish”‚ it was a place where you could sleep easy.
The bubble bursts
On January 27‚ 2015‚ just a few months after the family returned from Australia‚ the sonic boom of breaking news pulsed out from the luxury estate and across the globe: Martin van Breda‚ his wife Teresa and their son Rudi had been hacked to death by an axe-wielding murderer.
Now only two members of this “ideal family” remained – and both of them‚ it seemed‚ had emerged from a story of biblical proportions.
Henri‚ with piercing eyes set in dark circles the colours of a healing bruise‚ was quickly labelled a troublesome boy by everyone from the garage attendant across the road and old family friends to a “skollie” who claimed to be his drug runner.
He had come out of this alive with nothing but a few scrapes and scratches.
Could he have done this dastardly deed?
And‚ if not‚ how could that fortified estate have had its boundaries perforated with no sign of a forced entry?
Henri stood in cold contrast to his sister Marli. At sweet 16‚ she had a mane of golden hair and a Facebook feed peppered with pictures of besties and sun-kissed holidays.
Now‚ she lay fighting for her life after severe blows to the head and jugular‚ delivered by the same axe that had ripped the life from her parents and brother.
Overnight‚ the De Zalze community was plunged into a state of double shock as it tried to come to terms with the brutal murder of a neighbour‚ while asking the same questions: How did someone get onto the estate? Or was the attacker a resident?
Estate manager Boet Grobler said at the time: “It is a tragedy and we are still shocked.
We‚ like the public‚ also want more information and want to know what actually happened here. Our security rules are strict and this is an isolated incident. There are no signs of a breach to security.”
Shocking details emerge
The pieces of this gruesome puzzle‚ though sketchy‚ began to fall into place.
In a frenzy of violence‚ someone had attacked the Van Breda family in the early hours of Tuesday.
It was only around 7.30am that a call was placed – by Henri – to emergency services‚ leaving the public wondering what had happened during the four-and-a-half or so intervening hours.
The recording of the call was leaked to the media‚ and another wave of shock washed over the public: Henri sounded remarkably calm and let out a small giggle at one point.
He said in the call that he had been “attacked by a guy with an axe” and that “they are unconscious and bleeding from the head”.
When emergency services arrived‚ a source close to the investigation said Martin and Rudi were found dead in a pool of blood together in one bedroom. Teresa and Marli were on the balcony.
Teresa was declared dead on the scene and an unconscious Marli was rushed off to hospital.
The three murder victims had all died of severe axe wounds to the head and neck‚ while Henri had superficial scratches and bruises.
It also emerged that the 4.5kg axe was new‚ which led police on a hunt to find out where it was bought and by whom.
Then came the biggest twist of all: it was revealed that the police injury form showed Henri’s bruises and scratches were “self-inflicted”. The question now became: when is an arrest going to be made?
It also came to light that Henri had had a brain scan in Australia the previous year‚ and had recently spent time at a mental health and drug rehab centre in Bellville‚ a suburb in the north of Cape Town.
Then it was revealed that Marli had finally woken up after enduring brain surgery‚ and a medically induced coma. Now everyone held their breath as to whether she would describe what had happened.
Nurses were said to have put up pictures of the family (excluding Henri) up in her hospital room‚ and she would cry when she looked at them.
She could not‚ however‚ say anything as her jaw and neck were severely damaged.
Then that changed too‚ but there was still no statement. First‚ her fragile state prevented police from even trying to take one‚ and then later‚ as her life slowly returned to as “normal” as possible under the circumstances and she came out of hospital after a six-week stay‚ she was diagnosed with retrograde amnesia.
Would details of that horrific night ever be forthcoming?
It seemed unlikely they would ever come from Marli‚ who returned to school at Somerset College in Somerset West.
An arrest is made
It took as long as 18 months before an arrest‚ and it wasn’t the movie-style swoop the public had been waiting for.
Instead‚ on 13 June 2016‚ Henri handed himself over at Stellenbosch police station after the police told his lawyer an arrest was imminent.
According to the indictment‚ “an axe and kitchen knife (both from the Van Breda family home) were recovered from the scene”.
It also stated that voices were heard coming from the home on January 26‚ that Henri had tried to call his girlfriend just before 4.30am‚ and that he had done an internet search for emergency numbers.
The document also read that: “[Henri van Breda] tampered with the crime scene‚ inflicted injuries to his person‚ and supplied false information to the police in order to mislead the police as to the true identity of the perpetrator.”
The National Prosecuting Authority spokesman‚ Eric Ntabazalila‚ also confirmed that the DNA in the blood on Henri’s clothing (white socks and shorts) was his own.
Henri was granted R100‚000 bail‚ and after various postponements – and another wave of headlines when he was arrested for dagga possession – the pre-trial hearing was finally set for early February. It was decided the case would begin in the high court on March 27.
Finally‚ what happened behind closed doors on that fateful night will move from the collective imagination to the world of forensics‚ facts and the justice system.