On December 10, 2013, Sandiswa Mhlawuli, a 27-year-old unmarried mother of two, was murdered. Several eye-witnesses say her ex-boyfriend Nkosinam Xabadiya (then 29-years-old) pulled her out of a stationary commuter van and stabbed her multiple times.
Months before her lifeless body would lay on the ground in Dutywa, a small rural town in the Eastern Cape, Sandiswa had sought a protection order against Xabadiya. It had been an arduous process, recalls Sandiswa’s mother: One police officer even told Sandiswa it was not his place to interfere in domestic affairs. In the end it all came to dust. The protection order was finally issued, yet she was stabbed to death that same day, with the court papers folded in her bag.
For a time following her death, the wheels of the criminal justice system seemed to be moving forward. Xabadiya was promptly arrested and charged with murder at Dutywa Police Station. “The accused did wrongfully and intentionally kill Sandiswa Mhlawuli by stabbing her with a knife,” reads the charge sheet.
Sometime in late January, Xabadiya appeared before a district court and was granted R1000.00 bail. It is here that things took an un-ceremonial turn. “He [Xabadiya] states he can’t afford bail at all. [The] state is not opposed to his release or (sic) it be reduced,” says the court document. Despite being caught while fleeing the scene, and eye-witnesses confirming it was he who stabbed Sandiswa, Xabadiya was released without bail and the case was adjourned.
The state’s decision left many troubling questions unanswered. Principal among them: Why did the state not consider that Xabadiya might intimidate witnesses and so jeopardise the case? Why plunge a community already traumatised into further anxiety? Why treat murder like a petty crime? The questions hung in the air like a cloud of mist.
Patrick Godana, a gender activist in his late forties who doubles as a Lutheran minister on Sundays, was agitated when he got wind of this case from his office in Cape Town. He works for Sonke Gender Justice (“Sonke”), an NGO that seeks to promote healthy relationships between men, women and children. Sonke trains people in communities to prevent and respond to gender-based violence and other related issues. They do this using a variety of strategies, including educating men and boys in urban and rural areas on the consequences of domestic and sexual violence, and encouraging both men and women to join community action teams (CATs) which educate and mobilise the broader community.
One of these CATs is in Chafutweni near where Sandiswa lived and died. The CAT-Chair, Sindile Nohala, notified Sonke about Sandiswa’s death and the miscarriage of justice that seemed to be occurring. He informed Patrick’s colleagues that the case was due in court on February 14th, and that the CAT planned to support Sandiswa’s mother, and push for justice for Sandiswa.
Patrick decides to travel to the Eastern Cape to assist. I travel with him to document the process.
It’s hot and humid on the afternoon when we arrive at the airport in East London. Our drive to Chafutweni, the village where Sandiswa lived with her 47-year old mother, is replete with familiar scenes from South Africa’s hinterland – cows grazing, gravel roads, thatched mud huts, donkey carts and that feeling of time passing slowly. We drive three hours from the airport, and when we get there it’s dark.
Some 30 people, including Sandiswa’s mother, are there to greet Patrick. Plans are already in motion to stage a protest the next day, Valentine’s Day, demanding justice for Sandiswa Mhlawuli. The mood is sombre and expectant. “USonke loo abamaziyo abazange bambone” Patrick says, “Sonke is here” – a rallying cry which is repeated countless times over the next day. He conveys his condolences to Sandiswa’s mother who is still grieving. “I’m here to tell you you’re not alone mama” he says, adding that Sonke (which is Xhosa for “together”), and the community at large, are here to support her. The meeting runs fast and in less than an hour it’s finished. Everything is in place for the community actions the next day.
Friday comes swiftly and by morning the heat is sweltering. Patrick has arranged to meet the community in front of the court building in Dutywa at 9am. We arrive 30 minutes early to scope out the situation and do a recce of the derelict two-story building. Afterwards, there is nothing else to do except wait.
Packed in vans and dressed in matching T-shirts supplied by Sonke, the CATs arrive. More than sixty people disembark from the vehicles singing songs of protest and chanting. It’s a repertoire which dates back to the days of the anti-apartheid struggle. Some are carrying placards, with bold black lettering: I RING THE BELL IN MEMORY OF SANDISWA MHLAWULI. The noise catches the attention of passers-by on the street and another local women’s group, Dutywa Women’s Support Centre, decides to join in.
Sometimes, the only way ordinary people can make themselves heard is by making noise. On her own, as a barely literate woman from a rural area, Sandiswa’s mother’s voice would have been rendered inaudible by state institutions infinitely more powerful than she is. Not now, not today.
When we arrive inside the court, the case, surprisingly, is not on the docket. Patrick finds out from colleagues at the Commission for Gender Equality that the court date is actually February 26th. No-one had told Sandiswa’s mother who had heard that Xabadiya was to face the court on February 14th.
From the group outside, a party of five is chosen to go and speak with the representatives of the court – to find out why Xabadiya was released without bail, and why Sandiswa’s mother did not even receive notification of the court date. Among the delegates are Sandiswa’s mother, another family member, the CAT-Chair, Patrick and a local Methodist priest, Reverend Booi. I’m allowed to join to observe.
The public prosecutor, Mr. Mbaleka, who is there to greet us, is visibly shaken and beads of sweat drip from his brow. A lengthy discussion ensues and he listens attentively. Afterwards, he says to Patrick, who has assumed the role of chief interlocutor, that the best course of action is to seek answers from the police. There is nothing his office can do to overturn the court’s decision, he explains.
Outside, the march continues for 100m to the police station where Sandiswa initially tried to file for a protection order. A senior officer at the station redirects questions about the case to the office of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), another block away. There, the same party of five convenes in the office of Mr. Matshoba, second-in-command in charge of the district unit. Investigating Officer Tshikila, a stern-looking young woman is also present.
Finally, answers start to emerge. The group of five feel that Officer Tshikila mishandled the case. Routine procedures, even the most mundane, went ignored. A two-page A4 document from the court says the accused was released without bail because of an “unfinished charge sheet.”
Sandiswa’s mother, who had spoken sparingly during the morning, finally breaks down. “I came here to report that I am not safe,” she says as tears begin to fall down her face. “The child is no more, I know,” she says, “…but what I do not like is to be continuously made to feel hurt.” She says she no longer sleeps in her house because she’s afraid of Xabadiya whom she says threatened to kill her too on the night before her daughter was murdered. Even though she too has a protection order, she and her granddaughters, Sandiswa’s two children (ages 8, and 5), understandably don’t feel safe.
Her pain is tangible. Sandiswa was the bread-winner and not only did her murder rob her two children of their mother, but now Sandiswa’s mother struggles to provide for herself and the girls.
“I am not a well-to-do person…,” she continues to tell the officials, “[but] to be made to suffer, my child to be killed – and on top of that to not receive any care, that means I don’t know what I am living for in this world,” she says. The weight of Sandiswa’s mother’s grief is almost too much to bear and a hush descends on the room while she collects herself.
Patrick tells Officer Tshikila that it is in our human nature to be defensive and it’s very sad that people find it difficult to say simple words like “I am sorry.” It is then that the investigating officer apologises to Sandiswa’s mother for not keeping her informed about the developments of the case, and promises to do better.
Mr. Matshoba says that although it is beyond the NPA’s powers to overturn the decision of a court, they will ask them to reconsider the decision (to release Xabadiya without bail) first thing on Monday after taking a statement from Sandiswa’s mother.
It’s a small victory for a day’s work, but at least the wheels of justice seem to be moving again. Patrick and the CAT are determined to stay on top of this, and to work to make sure Sandiswa’s murder sees retribution.
It feels wrong that a few dozen people have to protest outside the courthouse in order for the judicial process to be properly put into action. More than half of the murder cases in South Africa don’t make it to court within two years. One would think that a murder done in broad daylight in front of eyewitnesses would not be at risk for being amongst them.
As we drive back to the airport, I wonder if Sandiswa’s mother will ever feel whole again. She did not get the justice hoped for. Her daughter’s killer is still free. The most she was able to get was some promises to do better, and an apology.
When Xabadiya did appear in court, it became clear that the fight to ensure Sandiswa’s murder doesn’t fall through the huge legal crevices will be an on-going battle. Last week, Patrick returned to Dutywa and joined the Chafutweni community action team to protest outside the courthouse for Xabadiya’s hearing. The Commission for Gender Equality joined in the community action too. Nevertheless, Xabadiya was again released without bail. Patrick is still in Dutywa and is now working on a written request to have Xabadiya re-arrested. He is determined to keep making a noise until the justice system starts working for Sandiswa.
*Sandiswa’s mother’s words have been translated from Xhosa