By Dr. Eugene Brink
Henri van Breda was recently found guilty and sentenced to three life terms in prison for the murder of his father, brother and mother at the De Zalze luxury estate in Stellenbosch in 2015.
It was one of the most sensational trials and family murders in the history of South Africa and garnered intense media attention. It seemed completely senseless and unusual for someone from such an esteemed, stable and well-to-do family to murder them in such an abhorrent manner. This perhaps explains why the case drew the amount of attention and scrutiny it did.
Yet these occurrences are not unique in South Africa or the world. In fact, they are quite common. The media fairly regularly reports on police officers in South Africa who wipe out their families and loved ones – ostensibly due to job-related stress and facilitated by having easy access to firearms and other weapons.
Another recent high-profile case was that of Christopher Panayiotou receiving a life sentence for orchestrating the murder of his wife, Jayde. Don Steenkamp was a teenager in 2012 when he wiped out his prominent family on Good Friday. The case became known as the “Griekwastad murders” and he is now serving a 20-year sentence.
In one week in 2005, 13 people died in family murders in the Western Cape alone. It was then estimated that in South Africa a woman is killed by her partner every six hours.
Profiling and motives
Who are the likely suspects when it comes to family murders? In an in-depth examination of this alarming trend, Ilse Pauw from Health24 found that family murders are almost always committed by the father. “The father assumes the role of head of the household, breadwinner and sole ‘protector’ of the family. He often has an inappropriate and exaggerated sense of responsibility.
“Such a man is probably used to taking decisions on behalf of the other family members – even to the extreme point of deciding whether they would prefer to live or die. The family murderer often feels out of control and overwhelmed by aspects of his life, such as marital problems or custody disputes.”
She writes that financial difficulties are common and he may feel that he has failed and is letting his family down. “There is a strong sense of helplessness and perceived inability to rectify the situation. The pressure can lead an otherwise controlled individual to lose control and become aggressive. There is an unwillingness to admit that he is not coping. He would rather kill himself than admit that he needs help. The patriarchal man often feels that his family is unable to cope without him and would rather kill them than leave them to fend for themselves.”
It is very rare, but not impossible, for mothers to commit family murders. “In such cases it usually is a single mother who has assumed some of the roles ascribed to the traditional patriarchal father. The same exaggerated sense of responsibility and of being overwhelmed by circumstances occur in these situations,” Pauw writes.
This still does not, however, explain why Van Breda and Steenkamp – two young men from wealthy families who weren’t burdened with any responsibility – wiped out their entire nuclear families. And speculation without much certitude abound on these issues.
Kelly Phelps, a senior lecturer at the department of public law at the University of Cape Town, told The Citizen newspaper she was at a loss as to why Van Breda committed such a heinous crime. “Throughout the trial, Henri has maintained his innocence and the judge has emphasised that there has been no evidence of motive – something which has left me numb,” she said.
His suggested motives ranged from money to drugs, but Phelps dismissed these as unproven rumours and speculation. For instance, she doesn’t believe you are likely to brutally kill your entire family with an axe over money. “Failure to establish the motive has proven to be the weakest case for the state.”
Gauteng clinical psychologist Lynette le Roux, who specialises in psycho-legal and forensic work, said the trial posed more questions than answers and she, too, could not say exactly what triggered the young man to do something this ghastly.
“There are very tough questions to be asked and there is not one answer because this is an extreme case. First, it would be important to establish the history with his parents, brother and sister.
“Also establishing a history of aggressiveness towards other people would be vital. Has he had difficulty in relationships with other people? Is there history of coming into conflict with the law? Was there substance or alcohol abuse?
“Understanding past history from childhood would also be important. Did he ever abuse animals? Is there a personality dynamic that made him behave in this manner? Using an axe to kill is very violent and it begs the question: What made him so angry?”
Phelps also added that there was no evidence of antisocial behaviour or psychopathy.
Psychiatrist Konrad Czech says depression, substance abuse and personality type might lead someone to kill his family before taking his life (interestingly, in both the Griekwastad and De Zalze cases the perpetrator did not commit suicide).
According to clinical psychologist Welmoet Bok, there are many reasons behind family murders. “A patriarchal society could lead some men to believe that they had the final say in everything, including whether their families live or die. One cannot help but ask why this has been so prevalent in South Africa, but the answer is not easy to find.
“Drink and drugs are dis-inhibitors and play a large role, but the point is, why do some people go that far while others don’t?”
Dr. Mary Kuria, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Nairobi, cites a strong link between mental health disorders and social connectedness (or lack thereof) on the one hand, and gory family murders on the other. “Mental disorders from chronic alcohol and drug abuse, schizophrenia (a psychotic disorder where a person experiences hallucinations) and delusional disorder may all predispose a person to homicidal acts,” she says.
She adds that it isn’t only the quantity of social connectedness, but also the quality of interactions, that matter. “Is the person, for instance, connected to his or her workmates, family, club and God? Does the person have a confidante?”
It seems that Van Breda’s true motives will most probably only be revealed in future. And to understand and prevent family murders, much additional research is required even though the abovementioned warning signs should at least be heeded by parents, spouses and communities alike.
Brian Sokutu, 8 June 2018, “Why did Henri van Breda do it?” https://citizen.co.za/news/south-africa/1948187/why-did-henri-van-breda-do-it/.
Ilse Pauw, 17 December 2010, “What fuels family murder?” https://www.health24.com/Lifestyle/Woman/Friends-and-family/What-fuels-family-murder-20120721.
IOL, 23 May 2005, “Behind SA’s orgy of family murders”, https://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/behind-sas-orgy-of-family-murders-241920.
James Kahongeh, 16 March 2018, “Stress, hopelessness turns many into family butchers”, https://www.nation.co.ke/news/Poor-mental-health-top-trigger-of-family-murder/1056-4344858-5fau33/index.html.