He was facing death for drugs

Interpreting language takes on a whole different dimension when it involves the death penalty.
He was facing death for drugs

This is how I became a court interpreter.

My boss and I were working on a case. We're lawyers. In a tea-break we got introduced to the head interpreter at the court.

The conversation went like this:

Interpreter: "I heard your South African accent. Can you speak Afrikaans? We need an Afrikaans interpreter."

Me: "My Afrikaans is weak to poor."

My boss: "His Afrikaans is perfect."

Interpreter: "Excellent. Can you act as an interpreter in a capital punishment trial then? The accused is a South African Afrikaner. He got caught smuggling drugs."

Me: "Well, er… you see, the thing is… it's tough getting time off work."

My boss: "I'll give you time off work."

Interpreter: "You'll get paid."

My boss: "Nonsense, he'll do it pro bono."

Interpreter: "Fantastic! See you at the court then."

My boss: "It's been decided."

Me: "How did that just happen to me?"


Trembling, I arrived at the court on the Thursday. 

It was a committal hearing. This means the prosecution lays its cards on the table and lists all the evidence it has against the accused. The accused sees the evidence and then is asked to plead and say something.

The accused was sitting disconsolately in a glass cage. He was dressed in prison clothes. He was handcuffed and legcuffed. Two heavily armed policemen guarded him. Two others stood by.

He was up on drugs charges. Such charges carried the penalty of death.

He sat there, crestfallen, afraid.

He had been in jail for two years. He had not had a conversation in Afrikaans for two years, other than the one he had with his brother and sister who had flown out to see him.

When they saw him they were not allowed to touch him and had to speak to him through glass.

He was from a poor family. The cost of the air tickets and the hotels would have crippled them.

He had been living for two years in a jail in a foreign country with the near certain prospect that his charges would lead to his hanging by the neck. It was a countdown to horror.

And yet, he was not angry. He was not bitter. He was not seething.

He was just scared.

That Thursday was one of the biggest days of his life. The full might of the state was going to amass evidence against him.

Something lightens

But then something quite wonderful happened. The prosecutor informed his lawyer that they were amending the charge. The new charge was amended to read that the quantity of drugs he smuggled in was under the crucial 250g mark. 

In short, his new charges did not carry the death penalty any longer.

With him not speaking much English, it fell to me to tell him that he was no longer facing a capital offence. I was the humble messenger, but a messenger of great hope.

It is quite an experience having to tell someone that the imminent and highly probable death they had reckoned on receiving, is no longer on the cards.

At first he was emotionless. It had surprised him. He was expressionless. It was too big to take on board.

But slowly it sank in. And as the proceedings wore on he kept telling me that something had lightened.

Verligting, verligting, he kept saying over and over again.

In the breaks we spoke and chatted. About home and food we missed. About places in South Africa we had visited and about rugby. About his family and his mother, who would probably never see her son again.

We spoke about his regret and remorse; how he was sorry for his mistake. About the gang that troubled him up in jail and about his loneliness.

"I knew I had to come today," I said to him. "I know my Afrikaans is awful. But it was like I was meant to be part of telling you the good news."

He simply smiled. His eyes were misty.

We'll debate the merits of justice and drugs charges another day. Guilty or not, he got a dose of mercy and hope that day.

Mercy can only be mercy to the undeserving. It's only mercy because you don't deserve it. And that's what makes it beautiful.

Hermanus Nicolaas Pienaar was jailed 20 years and given 15 strokes of the cane. But he is alive.

Now that the case is over, I'm legally able to visit him in jail.

And when I do, I intend to take him a book to read, maybe show him a YouTube clip of a rugby match. Maybe even take him a hamburger, if the authorities allow.

Perhaps I could even phone his mother on his behalf.

I'll speak to him with my limited Afrikaans vocabulary. We'll talk about the fatherland. We'll talk about life beyond the walls and barb-wire. We'll talk — just for a few moments — as free men.

Photos by Vectorportal