South Africa mourns 'gentleman' teacher killed in Yemen

7th December 2014, Comments 0 comments

South Africa was mourning on Sunday a teacher who had left a comfortable life back home to help children in Yemen, but was taken hostage and killed in a botched attempt to rescue a US hostage.

Pierre Korkie, a 56-year-old teacher who had been held captive since May 2013, was killed along with American photojournalist Luke Somers when US commandos stormed an Al-Qaeda hideout in Yemen early on Saturday.

Korkie was killed by his captors just a day before he was due to be released under a negotiated deal.

The deeply religious cross country running coach and biology teacher taught for 23 years at the highly-regarded Grey College in Bloemfontein.

He set out for Yemen in 2009 to do charity work in the unstable Arabian penisula country, before being snatched by militants.

Korkie's death hit hard for some of South Africa's sporting stars, whom he taught and coached at the elite school.

"He was a real gentleman, he had a calmness, was very calm, he demanded respect but didn't ask for it," said Ryk Neethling, who won a gold medal in freestyle relay swimming in the 2004 Olympics.

"I can only imagine what he must have been going through over the last year and half, but I think that calmness really helped them to get through everything," Neethling said.

Zola Budd, a South African running legend who once caused a storm by switching allegiance to Britain, also mourned the passing of her one-time coach.

She is "heart-broken", her agent Ray De Vries told AFP. "It's horrible for all of us ... terrible."

The South African government said it had undertaken "numerous initiatives" to help secure Korkie's release, but did not elaborate.

"We are therefore saddened that the kidnapping ended in the tragic death of Mr Korkie, a man innocent of any crime," the government said in a statement.

The failed US raid came after the kidnappers had threatened in a video to kill Somers within 72 hours.

Korkie's captors had previously demanded a ransom of $3 million (2.2 million euros).

But South African charity Gift of the Givers, which was negotiating for his release via Bedouin intermediaries, had said it reached a deal to pay $200,000 and that he was due to be freed on Sunday.

Korkie's wife Yolande, who was taken hostage with her husband, was freed in January after what the Pretoria statement said was an "intervention" by the South African government, with the assistance of Gift of the Givers and the Yemeni government.

The body of the former coach, father to a teenage son and daughter, is expected to arrive in South Africa on Monday.

- 'An excellent teacher' -

Korkie studied agricultural science at the University of the Free State, where he was known for his penchant for discussing vegetable growing and raising sheep. During his decades at Grey College he was said never to leave the school except to work on a farm.

He remained active throughout his life, although in recent times his health was on the decline and his family believed he went entirely deaf during his captivity.

Korkie was a personification of the Afrikaner culture -- the white South African minority descended from the country's first Dutch and French Huguenot settlers -- with his focus on sport, farming and his Christian faith.

"He was an excellent teacher, that was the love of his life, he was a committed Christian and he served the poor with a glad heart... wherever he went," said Daan Nortier, a spokesman and lawyer for the Korkie family.

Despite their deep commitment to their Christian faith, the Korkies did not clash with their Muslim neighbours in Yemen.

"Most of their friends were Muslim," said Imtiaz Sooliman, president of Gift of the Givers. "They used to go to Muslim homes and their children played with Muslim children."

"When Yolande was released she was flooded with messages from Yemeni Muslim friends. The missionary issue did not seem to be significant here," he added.


© 2014 AFP

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