Two white South African farmers who forced a black man into a coffin and allegedly threatened to burn him alive have told a court they were just trying to "scare" the man.

Willem Oosthuizen and Theo Jackson, both 29, were arrested last year after a video showing suspected thief Victor Mlotshwa in a coffin went viral online.

The farmers can be seen in the clip trying to cram the 27-year-old labourer into the wooden box and force down the lid as he whimpers in fear.

As well as allegedly threatening to pour petrol on him and set him alight, the two farmers were also said to have threatened to put a snake in the coffin.

The incident took place near Komati power station in Mpumpalanga on 17 August of last year.

The video sparked anti-racism protests in South Africa, which continues to suffer deep racial divides more than 20 years years after the end of Apartheid.

Both defendants deny charges of kidnapping, attempted murder, assault with intent and possession of an illegal firearm.

They appeared for the first day of their trial on Monday (31 July) at the High Court in Delmas, east of Johannesburg.

Investigating officer Constable Dimakatso Bahula told the court that Mlotshwa noticed two Land Cruisers following him on the day in question.

The vehicles stopped and two men assaulted and kicked him without explanation, he added.

But the defence said their clients had caught Mlotshwa with stolen goods on private property, namely copper wire, and wanted to scare him to prevent further thefts.

Both the accused, who are foremen on different farms in Middelburg, said after they detained Mlotshwa, they told him they would take him to the police.

But the alleged thief then threatened to burn down the farm's crops and murder the wives and children of the accused, the court heard.

The defendants admitted it was then that they decided to instead take Mlotshwa to a remote area in order to "convince" him not to go through with his alleged threats. They forced him into a coffin as a scare tactic, they added.

They claimed the coffin had been used before by the farm's owner to frighten thieves from stealing mieles (corn on the cobs).

Farm owner Johannes de Beer denied he had ever used the coffin to terrorise thieves at his farm.

The trial continues.

Willem Oosthuizen,
Theo Jackson, left, and Willem Oosthuizen appear in court after an online video emerged showing them pushing a black man into a coffin and threatening to burn him alive Reuters