Resurgence of grief

Picture by Eric Miller

On 26 May, Safrean colleague, Eric Miller shared a post on Facebook as a reminder that 32 years ago, in 1989, 14 residents from Upington in the Northern Cape were sentenced to death for the murder of a policeman, Jetta Lucas Sethwala during a community protest. 

The defendants became known collectively as the ‘Upington 25’. Among those sentenced to death was Evelina De Bruyn, a 60 year old grandmother who did not participate in the murder, but was sentenced on the basis of the much despised ‘Common Purpose’ doctrine applied by the apartheid government, which saw her as guilty simply because she was in the crowd when Sethwala was murdered.

The trial finally found 25 people guilty of murder, they were the largest group of people sentenced to death in SA for a politically motivated crime. The Common Purpose doctrine had previously been used to sentence 6 people implicated in the 1984 killing of a township official in Sharpeville.

POTRIUP40014 Politics. Upington 25 Trial. Professor Graham Tyson outside court with stacked files on his arm after giving evidence. A black policeman was beaten to death and his body was burned during a riot. Twenty five people were convicted of his murder, 14 were sentenced to death. Andrea Durbach was the legal advisor for the murder trial. Jan Basson, was the justice of the Upington Supreme Court ©Eric Miller/iAfrika photos

On 29 May 1991, the High Court overturned the controversial death sentences of the 14 convicted of the murder, and ordered 11 of them released. Murder convictions for three were upheld, and they received prison terms ranging from 8 to 12 years.Eric Miller

The reminder triggered a surge of repressed grief evidently lodged somewhere in my psyche.

I used to visit Evelina de Bruin on death row in Pretoria Central Prison.

Evelina De Bruin

She was very simple woman who spoke no English and with my clumsy Afrikaans we communicated minimally, with me asking questions about her wellbeing, how she was being treated, how  she was feeling, what she needed – and very long silences in between, where we just sat together on either side of the thick glass wall the separated us.  She sat close up against the glass, I remember. I moved forward when I spoke to her. She wore glasses and a doek on her head and her features were somehow indistinct as they are in some of the pictures of her. From time to time she would remove her glasses and wipe her eyes.

When the visiting hour was over, a guard came to fetch her. She followed with weary resignation, as though weighed down by despair and confusion. That’s how I felt too after these visits. On my way out, I left a little money with the reception for her to buy something from the tuckshop.

Evelina’s personal story can be found on SA History Online (SAHO) –

Picture by Eric Miller – Evelina De Bruin;s children and grandchildren

She came from a desperately poor family in a home where ten family members shared a house with one bedroom and no electricity or running water.  She was illiterate. She worked as a domestic worker for 18 years and in 1985, was earning R100 per month.  Married twice, she had seven children.  She had no history of activism until her name surfaced in the ‘Upington 14’ trial.

From November 1989, Black Sash and other women’s organisations put pressure on the government to release her. In August 1990 she was moved to Upington prison to await the outcome of her appeal and after spending five years in prison, including two years on death row, she was finally released. 

Evelina died in 2012. In 2016, she was memorialised when a building was named after her in the Northern Cape

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


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