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Lauren Beukes

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Trying to let go

It’s a week until Zoo City launches in South Africa and I should be blogging about that. I had cute sloth videos to post today, but I need to write about this instead.

On Friday, I accompanied Violet Zazayokwe to the bleak grey building of Athlone Magistrate’s Court for the trial of Sonwabo Njana, charged with murdering her sister, Thomokazi.

In September, Sonwabo “allegedly” assaulted Thomokazie. He poured boiling water over her, stabbed her in the buttocks and then locked her in his shack and walked away. She was a hostage there for five days until the neighbours were alerted by the moaning and the terrible smell and called the police. They broke down the door and summoned an ambulance. She had third degree burns. They were infected. There were flies thick on her wounds. She was half mad from pain and too traumatised by her ordeal to make a statement at first. That only happened a week later.

What the police failed to do was take a statement from anyone other than Thomokazie. Not the neighbours who had called them, not the friends who saw Sonwabo grab Thomokazie by the arm and drag her away to his shack five days prior. Not the paramedics who arrived on the scene.

They also failed to let the family know that Sonwabo had been released with a “warning”

They failed to communicate with the family at all, to let them know how the case was proceeding (not at all) or what their rights were (apparently none) to the extent that when Violet found Sonwabo skulking around the house, hiding under Thomokazie’s window, the family didn’t know they could call the cops to report him for threatening behaviour.

Four months later, Thomokazie died of “natural causes” according to the death certificate issued by Somerset Hospital. She died in the waiting room. She was 23 and had been in and out of hospital and clinics repeatedly since the assault. She was barely able to walk, barely able to get out of bed. More than once, her mother, Gertie, had to pay R600 to rush her to a clinic at 4am in the morning because she was in such terrible pain. Gertie is a domestic worker (she’s been working for my family for eight years once a week). She earns maybe R2400 a month.

(When Thomo died just before Christmas, I put out a call to help raise money to pay for the funeral. Friends in real life and on Twitter and Facebook and total strangers came together to raise R10 000 in 24 hours.)

The police did not follow up to get the medical records.

We were informed of all this on Friday morning, the day of the trial, by a sympathetic and very, very pissed off prosecutor. He said he had no choice but to strike the case off the roll. He wasn’t even going to try to prosecute because the cops had botched the investigation (my description). He said “botched” wasn’t the right word, because that would imply there was any investigation at all. He wrote a furious two page report for the police docket pointing out all the holes in the investigation. “Holes” is the wrong word too. A blank page doesn’t have holes.

The only evidence in the docket was Thomokazie’s statement. The word of a dead girl. Sonwabo could say anything in court. Anything at all and get away with it. She poured the boiling water on herself. She was coming at him with the boiling water and he pushed her. He wasn’t there at all. It was some other abusive boyfriend who had a history of assaulting her who just happened to be in his house at the time.

Better to drop the case than try to go to trial and have him acquitted and have double jeopardy come into play where we could never charge him for this again.

I was devastated. The fucker tortured and murdered a 23 year old girl and now he was going to get away with it?

“It’s not over,” the prosecutor explained. He gave us the phone number for the Gugulethu police station commander, the police commissioner, he suggested I email Helen Zille, Lennit Max, force them to “re-open” a case that had never really been opened in the first place. Get enough evidence and we could charge Sonwabo properly.

I started rallying forces, talking to my brother-in-laws, who are, respectively, the head of the etv news channel and a police reservist and advocate. Sarah Lotz’s advocate husband offered to help. I sent an email to Third Degree, asked Violet and Gertie to make a full list of anyone who might be a useful witness, the full details of every hospital stay, every middle-of-the-night emergency room visit, to try and recall Sonwabo’s previous assaults, the approximate dates of when they’d seen Thomokazie with bruises or cuts or hair pulled out of her scalp over the three years she’d been dating him (she never laid a charge, of course, victims of psychological and physical abuse too often don’t), the details of his previous rumoured eight year prison sentence.

This morning, Gertie phoned me. The family can’t bear to go on. It’s been too much for them already. Re-opening the case means re-opening their pain. They want to let it go, move on with their lives.

On Friday, Violet and I saw Sonwabo in the corridor of Athlone Magistrate’s Court. His new girlfriend walked obediently two steps behind him like a faithful dog as he swaggered out of the court. She was probably 19.

I have to find a way to let go too.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    May 17th, 2010 @11:29 #

    This is a ghastly story which just shows how endemically the South African justice system fails the people it's supposed to serve, particularly those with few resources. In the midst of your pain, grasping for that intagible justice, you have to bash your head against a brick wall until it just gets too sore and you give up. Lauren's empathy - on a small, interpersonal level - will help these people more than the System will, but there should be more, shouldn't there?

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Mandy J Watson</a>
    Mandy J Watson
    May 17th, 2010 @11:57 #

    I am speechless. And furious.

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    May 17th, 2010 @12:21 #

    Lauren, I'm so very sorry, for Thomo's family, for you.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Liesl</a>
    May 17th, 2010 @12:24 #

    So utterly incomprehensible, Lauren. If only one didn't have a sense that this story is set to run its course all over again with the next woman who doesn't have a sufficiently well-developed sense of self preservation and/or capacity to extricate herself soon enough.

    It raises so many questions about how people are failed at multiple levels over and over, in life and in death. So many interventions that might have made a difference didn't happen. It leaves one feeling supremely bewildered about who we are and where our humanity, intelligence, compassion and sanity as a society have gone.

  • Mervyn
    May 17th, 2010 @12:26 #

    Have spent ten minutes staring at my computer trying to find words. A few words. Just a sentence. I don't have any.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    May 17th, 2010 @14:49 #

    Sadly, this is part of a continuum of contempt on the part of the authorities for domestic violence cases. They are seldom regarded as "real" crimes, even if a woman ends up dead.

    But, oh, how different it would have been if she had been a middle class white woman. Media indignation would have been shrill and ongoing. The case would have spawned a rash of domestic abuse columns in the women's magazines. It would have provided a topic for the the chattering classes to shake their heads over for weeks. ("There were actually flies in her wounds, can you believe it?")

    As long as African lives are held cheap, and men are given carte blanche to abuse women horrifically, this will keep on happening.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    May 17th, 2010 @14:59 #

    Lauren, I'm weeping reading this. I have only one shred to clutch at. Either you will move on, knowing that you gave it your very best shot. And that busy people, angels like Andrew, like Sarah, like Charlie, were prepared to help, while total strangers came forward to pay for Thomo's funeral.

    Or, haunted at night, you will one day write an utterly searing indictment of the many factors that allow brutal men to torture resourceless woman to death and get off scot-free. And you will name names. It will generate the same sort of buzz as Kevin's Ways of Staying. And a reporter might get to Sonwabo's girlfriend before she becomes his next victim.

    My shoulder is yours.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    July 19th, 2010 @16:17 #

    Update: The family has decided to pursue the case after all. I just got off the phone with a detective at Guguletu police station. She sounded smart and competent and together. Here's hoping.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    July 19th, 2010 @16:35 #

    Here's the media coverage on this case:

    Sept 04 2009 Cape Argus: There Were Flies On Her Burnt Skin

    Dec 01 2009 Cape Argus: Cops Lose Man Arrested for Assault

    Dec 29 2009 Cape Argus: Woman Dies After Boiling Water Attack

    The Times May 18th Horror Murder Case Revived :

    Weekend Argus: 22 May 2010: Boiling water attack man goes free (link to PDF scan on Yfrog - article is behind the Argus' paywall)


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