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Lauren Beukes

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Thomo’s Story

This is not a happy story. It’s not a story at all. If you can, please help.

Thomokazi Zazayokwe, 23, died on Sunday morning.

She was murdered four months ago.

Three weeks ago, her mother, Gertrude Mdelele stood in my kitchen and told me proudly, ‘I am not Gertie today, I am detective Gertie,’ because she’d caught the bastard who did it when the police couldn’t.

We didn’t know then that Thomo would die from her wounds, that the police would lose the culprit.

Gertie has worked for me and my husband for eight years. Once a week she comes to clean my house and do the ironing. Domestic chars are common in South Africa. I could do this myself, but I appreciate the help and in a country with 40% unemployment, Gertie appreciates the job. She has four other people she works for during the rest of the week.

Over the years we have become involved with her family. Together with her other employers, we’ve helped fix up her house and provided loans when she needs them, usually, in this time of Aids, so she can attend a funeral in the rural Ciskei. But we also got her youngest, Thomo, a dress for her matric dance in better days, found her middle daughter, Bhongo, a job (for a time) and helped paint her kitchen bright green.

Gertie is a strong, proud woman with a wicked sense of humour. She’s an elder in her church, an outspoken member of her community council, who liaise with local government on issues of housing or crime. When a burglar tried to break into the house she was working in several years ago, she beat him unconscious with a brick, tied him up and called the police.

But Gertie has endured more than one person should ever have to. Her abusive ex-husband used to share her shack. She built him a separate room and locked him out of the main house until her RDP house from the government finally came through.

Her second eldest daughter, Nonkolo is HIV+. So is her four year old grandson, Luvo. Nonkolo copes with the virus by drowning it in alcohol to the extent that Gertie has taken custody of the child and now collects his government grant money herself so that Nonkolo cannot drink it away.

She was already supporting Bhongo, who now has a one year old daughter and no job, when Thomo was attacked by her boyfriend, Sonwabo N-, in late August.

Sonwabo had beaten Thomo before. Thomo and Gertie had fought about it. Gertie had begged her to leave him. But this time, he didn’t limit himself to punching Thomo in the face. He beat her to the ground, stabbed her in the buttocks and poured boiling water over her head and back. Then he locked her in his shack and walked away.

After five days, responding to the moaning, to the terrible smell, the neighbours broke down the door. By the time the ambulance came, flies were thick on her skin. (news story)

I offered to drive Gertie to the hospital. She didn’t want to go. She said she was too angry, she couldn’t see Thomo right now. She’d told her about this boy. I struggled with that, struggled with the language barriers between us, her poor English, my non-existent Xhosa. I took it to mean that she was too hurt, too afraid, transmuting the raw fear for her child into anger because that was the only way to deal with the enormity of it, standing on the edge of this abyss.

She did go, eventually, that afternoon with Violet, her eldest daughter. Thomo was in a terrible way. She couldn’t speak her face was so swollen. The burns were agonising, bad enough on their own, but they’d been untreated for five days and now they were infected.

After a week, they were able to find a place for her at the specialist burns unit at Tygerberg where she received a skin graft. A week later they discharged her. It wasn’t good enough. She was still in agony. Several times Gertie had to make a plan in the middle of the night to get her to hospital, to change her bandages, get her pain medication.

The police couldn’t find the guy. But two months after Sonwabo had beaten and burned and stabbed her daughter, Gertie was returning home after a day working at my house and by chance, she saw him at Heideveld Station, just walking down the street.

She confronted him, ‘talking softly’ at first. She told him Thomo was in hospital. Sonwabo denied that he had anything to do with it. Gertie told him that Thomo was suffering, that she needed money and she knew he loved her, could he please help. He reluctantly handed over R40.

Gertie told me, ‘I put that money in my wallet and I hid it in my bra, because I knew now, I was going to have to fight! I prayed very deep to my God to help me. I was very scared. And then I grabbed that guy!’

He managed to wrench himself free and ran away, but Gertie shouted after him and a couple of taxi drivers tackled him. Gertie explained the situation, brandishing the police case number she was carrying in her wallet, and the police came to arrest him and took Thomo’s statement. She was too broken to make one the first time.

But when I put a journalist from the Cape Argus on to the story, no-one could seem to trace him. There was no evidence at all that an arrest had ever been made. Sonwabo had disappeared.

In the meantime, Thomo was getting worse. The late night hospital visits became more frequent. She started coughing up blood. Gertie wept in my kitchen. But, still, no-one expected that she would die.

I heard the news from Violet this morning. I didn’t understand her the first time she said it. And then I wept and raged and blamed myself for not doing more. Gertie is already on her way to the funeral.

It’s too late for Thomo. But I can do this, tell their story and maybe make it count. And when Gertie is back, we will find the bastard who did this or the bastard cops who lost him.

The funeral will cost R5000. Matthew and I have already put in R2000, which is all we can afford in this bad recessionary year.

We’re collecting money for Gertie and her family through Monsterpay (a local, secure Internet payment system ala Paypal run by Setcom), which is the easiest way to do it right now, especially for people outside of South Africa.

If you can contribute anything, R50, $10, £5, believe me, it will make a difference.

Click here to make a contribution in Rands. $10 is around R75. £10 is R120.

Realtime exchange rate information is at



Contribution Amount (in SA rands):


If you’re in South Africa, you can deposit cash into Gertie’s account directly.

Gertrude Mdeledle
First National Bank
Savings Acc # 62088530409

branch code 250655

Thank you for listening.


Recent comments:

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    December 24th, 2009 @09:20 #

    The donations have been coming in at a steady rate, and the amounts have been very generous. Thanks all for your contributions - we'll reach the required R5000 by noon today.

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    December 24th, 2009 @11:43 #

    Lauren now has her MonsterPay account up and running, so donations after 12 noon today should be sent through the form/button that now shows at the bottom of the post.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    December 24th, 2009 @12:33 #

    Thanks so much, Ben. Want to say more, but can't -- so just THANKS.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    December 24th, 2009 @19:39 #

    Huge thanks to everyone, we raised R4000 in 12 hours! It's an amazing Christmas present for a family in need and in pain.

    It's been difficult trying to explain to Gertie that total strangers on the Internet have been so moved by what happened to Thomo that they've reached out to help.

    However, there are still medical bills to pay, still debts, extra funeral costs we hadn't taken into consideration such as the cost of transporting Thomo's body to the Ciskei - and just helping Gertie support her family in this terrible time.

    So, donations are still very much needed and appreciated.

    If you have R20 spare, $5, please consider making a contribution.


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