JOHANNESBURG — In a case that shocked South Africa for its brutality, a white farmer was sentenced to life in prison yesterday for the murder of one of his black workers, who was attacked with machetes, tied up and thrown into a lion enclosure, where he was devoured.
The trial brought impassioned protests from demonstrators who saw the killing as another racial attack in a country still grappling with its apartheid past.
Many in the courtroom in the northern town of Phalaborwa whistled and cheered in approval when Mark Scott-Crossley, 37, was led out after the sentencing.
Human rights advocates said the killing also highlighted the plight of farmworkers in a country with a culture of violence and a history of racial hatred and mistrust. South Africa’s Human Rights Commission said in a 2003 report that attacks on farmworkers were common. Most are black or mixed race, and their bosses are white.
Judge George Maluleke sentenced Scott-Crossley to the maximum of life in prison for the killing. A Scott-Crossley employee and co-defendant, Simon Mathebula, was sentenced to 15 years because the judge found he had been coerced by his employer. The pair were convicted in April.
The judge said life sentences should only be imposed to protect society from a repeat of the crime or when the offense is so monstrous it demands harsh punishment.
“No crime fits this description more than the one before me and there is no doubt it would warrant this extreme punishment,” the judge said.
Nelson Chisale, 41, had been fired two months before his Jan. 31, 2004, murder for purportedly running a personal errand during working hours. According to testimony at the trial, Mr. Chisale was assaulted with machetes after returning to pick up some belongings and then was tied to a stake.
After being left bleeding for six or seven hours, he was taken to the Mokwalo White Lion Project and thrown over the fence, screaming as the animals tore at his body.
Later, investigators looking for the victim found only bones and blood-stained clothing.
Judge Maluleke said Scott-Crossley had masterminded the attack, dragooning his employees to participate in the crime.
Witnesses at the trial portrayed Scott-Crossley as a man with a history of aggression and violence.
The judge said there were substantial and compelling circumstances to justify a lesser sentence for Mathebula. The judge said Mathebula had limited participation in the crime and had nothing to gain from the death of Mr. Chisale, whom he had befriended and visited.
“More importantly, he disclosed to the police his complicity in the crime shortly after he was arrested,” the judge said.
The trial of a third suspect, Richard Mathebula, a former Scott-Crossley employee who is no relation to Simon Mathebula, was postponed until November because of illness.
A fourth man, Robert Mnisi, was given immunity from prosecution when he agreed to testify for the state.
Scott-Crossley was married by a magistrate yesterday morning before his sentencing and was led from the courtroom with his bride. His attorney, Charl van Tonder, said the verdict and sentence would be appealed.