The dark and brutal side of Stellenbosch unveiled

Erin van Rensburg's body was found buried on this sand dune between Elandsbaai and Veldrif. Picture: Henk Kruger African News Agency (ANA)

Erin van Rensburg's body was found buried on this sand dune between Elandsbaai and Veldrif. Picture: Henk Kruger African News Agency (ANA)

Published Dec 12, 2022


Stellenbosch: Murder Town. Two decades of shocking murders

Julian Jansen


Review: Hazel Makuzeni

I have a confession to make. As someone who readily enjoys reading and watching horror and crime stories, I’ve been taken aback by the murders I have read in this book. The sheer madness and brutality of it all is astonishing.

The fact that they are true has sent chills down my spine and left me disturbed. South Africa is a rough place with crime and mayhem off the charts. One would think I should not be shocked by this book, but heck I am. I think to myself: maybe I’m feeling this way because of the reality that these atrocities happened in picturesque Stellenbosch, or is it because of the gruesomeness and cunning that accompanied them? I think both. Much applause should go to the author and journalist, Julian Jansen. He has done a superb job in researching and bringing these heinous crimes to light. Some of the stories featured in the book have made national and international news, while others remain low-profile.

To the uninitiated: Stellenbosch is internationally celebrated as a town of wealth, prestige and beauty, with historic wine estates, blue mountains, business elites and aspiring students. But it is against this backdrop that evil lurks.

The author has focused on 12 murders that occurred in this town over a period of two decades. The murderers and victims cut across racial and social lines.

Take the story of Erin van Rensburg. She was a young BCom student whose body was found buried on a sand dune. Her life was snuffed out by a family friend, a brainy 24-year-old who was handed down a 30-year sentence for murder, kidnapping and rape. Erin’s murderer came from a remarkable family. His grandfather, and both his parents were medical practitioners.

Another hideous murder and rape was that of Hannah Cornelius. A 21-year-old who had matriculated with six distinctions from the private school Reddam House, she was a second-year BA humanities student at Stellenbosch University. In the book, a school friend describes her as “a ray of sunshine…the purest soul on the planet”. After reading her story and that of her friend (who was also left for dead that fateful night), I truly believe we are living among monsters.

The killer of Felicity Cilliers almost got away with her murder and rape. But, thanks to the determination of her father, her cold case was solved 11 years later. Felicity was a 28-year-old farmworker and the single mother of three young boys when her half-naked body was discovered among the bare grapevines.

Another case of depravity was that of 81-year-old Marie Verwey, a guest house owner and a cancer survivor. Marie was stabbed no fewer than 68 times and was found dead, sitting in her chair in the lounge of her home, in a scenic suburb of Stellenbosch.

One of her attackers, Nicole Geldenhuys, was once her home carer. In fact, Nicole had worked a shift at Marie’s home on February 12, 2017. A neighbour found the dead elderly woman on the day of her murder, February 16, 2017. I fully concur with the judge in his assessment that Nicole had behaved like someone without a soul or conscience.

Then there’s the murder of the wealthy wine farmer Stefan Smit. His story reads like a script of one of those American crime TV series. His widow is implicated in his murder, and so are his bodyguards. Add to the mix that his daughters, from his first marriage, are in a tug-of-war with his widow over his estate. A grim state of affairs.

The motives behind the gruesome murders covered in the book have all the hallmarks of the seven deadly sins from the Bible: that of pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth.