September 27, 2007. Nine o’clock in the evening.
And then came the phone call most South Africans dread: a loved one has become part of the country’s murder rate.
The grief in that moment – and also in the months after her brother, Mike Thomson’s (39), murder – was almost unbearable for Debby Thomsom. But Debby wouldn’t lie down. On the contrary.
Today, this iron woman is actively involved in fighting crime and serves on the management team of the Hoedspruit farm guard.
A few months after the murder of her brother, she set up a victim support unit in the Hoedspruit area and this unit now works together with the farm guard.
The unit aims to assist victims of trauma, whether due to crime, an accident or the death of a loved one. This includes emotional assistance, help during a post-mortem examination or the identification of a body. Where necessary, the unit will also assist families to identify criminals or attend court cases.
“After my brother’s death, our family was assisted by volunteers from the Parkview victim support unit in Johannesburg. It was so beneficial for our family and had such a positive effect on me,” says Debby.
At that stage there was no similar unit in Hoedspruit and Debby decided to set one up herself. She has lived in Hoedspruit since 1991.
However, her role in fighting crime did not stop there.
In a “rough man’s world”, Debby takes the lead today as the head of the Hoedspruit farm guard’s intelligence department, which was set up in 2017. She is also part of the farm guard’s response unit.
She is responsible for building processes and platforms that focus on the collection of crime-related data that contributes to a greater understanding of crime dynamics in the region and that is used to guide the police in various investigations and inquiries.
During her interview with RNews, Debby’s phone rang non-stop. “There is no rest for us.
“Sorry, I have to answer this call, it’s possibly about the rhino poacher we’re on,” she explains.
Gloomy evening; matter that drags on
At the time, Mike was shot dead during a house robbery at the family’s home in Craighall Park, Johannesburg.
Debby says four men overpowered him outside the house. The first shot hit him in the torso.
“A fight broke out between him and the men. Mike disarmed one robber and threw another into the pool and tried to drown. This robber, armed with a screwdriver, stabbed Mike a total of 14 times with it.”
While Mike wrestled with the robber in the pool, his accomplice got up and shot Mike in the back of the head.
The four robbers entered the house and held Mike’s wife and two children, respectively nine and 11 years old, at gunpoint. They looted several valuables, as well as Mike’s firearm and his car.
The couple’s seven-year-old daughter slept through the entire incident.
“There were five people involved in the incident, three of whom were only sentenced after ten years. One of the suspects was killed during a shooting shortly after the incident and the charge against the other was dropped early in the case.
“We had to wait a decade to get justice after the case was postponed several times due to the weak legal system.”
The attackers were members of the so-called Razor gang and Mike was shot dead by the gang leader, Bheki “Razor” Zulu.
The gang carried out violent armed robberies in the north of Johannesburg. Their modus operandi was to tie up and torture their victims, ransack the house and sometimes rape the woman in the house.
From conservation to crime fighting
Debby was initially a conservation worker and did conservation work in numerous game reserves in the Hoedspruit area, such as Manyaleti, Klaserie and Timbavati. In 1998, she was part of a group of conservation workers who helped register the Hoedspruit area as a Unesco biosphere.
However, after her brother’s death, her passion became crime fighting and she put aside her conservation work.
“I am not compensated for my work, but that is not why I do it. It’s a passion,” says Debby.
“Crime in the country is getting worse daily. I myself was a victim of crime several times after my brother’s death. But we can remain hopeful that things can get better by trying to do something about it ourselves.”
Debby published her first book in 2019 and My Beloved Country Made Me Cry is based on her brother’s murder.
The book focuses on the many systems that fail South Africans on a daily basis; as the Thomson family also experienced first hand.
Victim Support Unit
After Debby got the idea to start a victim support unit in Hoedspruit, she offered her services at the local police station.
However, she did not receive a single call in the first year.
“I don’t think people always have the courage to ask the police for such support services.”
A year later, she decided to join hands with the farm guard.
“We started with five people in the unit and now stand at 14 people. The community has learned to take us into their confidence.”
The aim of the unit is to assist families and people in the first 72 hours after a traumatic event.
“Apart from just offering guidance and advice on what needs to be done, we also focus on implementing processes of emotional debriefing – a process during which we help victims deal with their emotions, as well as the physical effects of trauma on their bodies. We also help to start re-establishing faith in humanity in the victim.
“One of the biggest causes of trauma is the feeling of helplessness. You don’t feel in control when someone shoves a weapon in your face or if you just flipped your car. It helps to have someone tell you right afterwards that what you did in the moment of the trauma event was the right thing – because you came out alive on the other side.
“That’s why the first 72 hours after a traumatic event are critical to laying a foundation for healing. We are not counsellors, but we encourage victims to go for counseling services later.”
According to Debby, there is a shortage of victim support units in the country.
“The reality is that the police don’t have the training to deal with something in an empathetic or emotional way.”
During RNews’s visit to Hoedspruit, many residents spoke highly of the farm guard.
The Hoedspruit farm watch was established in 2008 after a farm attack in the area.
“Thanks to the farm guard, Hoedspruit is one of the safest towns in the country today,” says one of the residents.
“We wouldn’t feel safer anywhere else than on Hoedspruit, because we know the farm guard is watching us,” says another resident.
According to Lafras Tremper, chairman of the farm guard, many people retire in the area because of the safety.
“Hoedspruit is definitely a safe town, but we can’t give all the credit to the farm guard,” says Tremper humbly.
“Let’s say Hoedspruit and its surroundings are a ‘blessed town’ and we who are part of it must work hard to keep it that way.”
Debby says criminals are wary of the Hoedspruit area because of its good safety reputation.
“They know they are going to be caught.”
According to Tremper, the farm guard’s main purpose is to serve the community – and of course to help secure it.
Hoedspruit is located in the central-east of the country and is also considered a smuggling route to Mozambique. The area is known for its citrus, mango and game farms.
Farm attacks are a rare phenomenon in these regions and the farm guard’s biggest battle is against rhino poachers. Fruit and meat poachers also strike now and then. The farm guard also helps to curb less serious crimes.
In response to the key to their success, Tremper says: discipline, cooperation and structure.
“First of all, we work closely with the police and have an extremely good relationship of trust with them. Information we receive from our informants in, for example, informal settlements is also of key importance.
“We also involve residents in the farm guard by adding them to WhatsApp communication groups. Messages on the groups are routed to the farm guard’s emergency phone, which is manned 24 hours a day by someone responsible for Hoedspruit.
“Hoedspruit farm guard is a very personal organisation. Everyone knows each other and everyone just works well together. Teamwork makes the whole process work, every person is important. There are no individuals or individual heroes. Everyone works together for the community and as the community.”
The farm guard also makes an effort to train the members of its response unit well and the structure is well formed.
“I think our members would rather call the farm guard before they call the local police. It is not because the police are not doing their job, but rather because the farm guard’s communication with the police is good.”
According to Debby, the police in Hoedspruit are struggling with a lack of resources and manpower and therefore the community would rather reach out to the farm guard.
In addition to the good communication on WhatsApp, the farm guard also has a good radio communication system. The entire environment is also secured with LPR cameras and monitoring cameras.
The farm guard also conducts patrols which further boosts visible policing in the area.
- For her own safety, Debby requested that a photo of her not be posted.