John Kepe, the Samson of the Boschberg
Sergeant Potgieter wrote an account of his dealings with John Kepe, after whom Kepe's Cave, close to the over night hut on the Boschberg Hiking Trail, is named. This account was published in the Somerset Budget and the following information is taken from his account.
John Kepe was born around 1898, and Sergeant C.F.Potgieter first heard of him when he read about him in a police journal in connection with housebreaking and poaching and then arrested him in Graaff-Reinet in 1921. He had several encounters with him over the next twelve years and again arrested him near Pearston in 1933. Kepe was found at this trial to be an habitual criminal, was once again jailed, then released in 1940 on condition that he did not leave Graaff-Reinet for 5 years, but he disappeared and the police lost all contact with him.
In 1940, Potgieter was stationed at Somerset East, where a series of housebreakings and poaching began. Very often the modus operandi was identical - a bag of sugar, meal, or mealies was emptied out and the sack was filled with sugar, coffee, meal, tobacco, matches and other supplies and taken away. The spoor left by the thief was always the same, one of the toes appeared to be missing. Plans were made to ambush him but shops in Cookhouse, Longhope and Kommadagga were plundered and the police had no success. Suddenly sheep began to be slaughtered on the Boschberg.
During 1950/51, a telephone call a week was received by the police reporting stock theft and housebreaking. Stock were continually being slaughtered on the Boschberg and Jan Nel's farm Ongegund was broken into 13 times in 18 months. Some people encountered a man carrying a .22 rifle on the Boschberg who behaved like a guard and questioned them but, as there was no such armed guard posted, the police realised that this must be their man.
On 28th November 1951, an old shepherd named Dirk Goliath reported that his hut on Boschberg had been broken into. Sergeant Botha went to investigate, and Goliath told him he had met a man carrying a .22 rifle who asked him "Are you the one killing the farmers' sheep here on the mountain? I am from the police, waiting here to catch the thief." Goliath's description of the man was the same as that given by another person who said he was accosted by a man with a .22, accusing him of being the thief.
On 14th December, Goliath's wife reported that her husband had gone to the veld and not returned and Mr Dixie Erasmus of Charlton informed the police that Dirk Goliath was found murdered on the Boschberg.
Now the hunt for the criminal was really on and on 26th February 1952 Kepe was apprehended when he went to steal salt for his stolen mutton on Mr Koos Botha's farm. Constable Mafukuzele and Sergeant J. Botha had been lying in wait and arrested him. He admitted that he was the man they were looking for and that he had killed Goliath, when Goliath realised who he was. The same night he showed the police the cave high on the Boschberg where he had been living for twelve years. It took a lorry to carry away all the stolen property stored there while another cave held at least 100 sheep skins.
Kepe was taken to Somerset East where the whole town turned out to see the infamous thief. When he came out of the Magistrate's office and saw the crowds, he declaimed "I am the Samson of the Boschberg. When the Philistines caught Samson, all the other Philistines came out to look at him, just like you are doing today."
On April 22nd 1952, in Cradock, John Kepe was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to death by Justice Gardiner. He was hung in Pretoria on 25th June 1952. Apparently his last wish was to talk to Sergeant Potgieter again and Potgieter went to Pretoria. His family say he never disclosed what was said.
These days, the independent spirit of John Kepe is felt to be still on the slopes of the Boschberg and stories are still told with a smile, including one that he used to join in the search parties looking for the thief! The cave is close to the overnight hut on the Boschberg Hiking Trail and can be explored by the adventurous.