The only way was murder
This is the story of a mother who made a deadly decision in defence of her daughter
The old man shuffles along in his cowboy hat with a checked band. His slow, considered movements make his shoes seem too heavy for his feet. He’s 80 but still runs his small shop. His wife speaks. He nods when prompted for affirmation. Mkhulu, she calls him.
His son would steal from the shop. When the old man refused to hand over the keys to the safe with the money, his son would choke him into submission. Eventually, the village headman would be called. Again.
Once, a long time ago now, the old man was a fighter who, like so many other “terrorists”, was sentenced to time on the Island for his convictions. But that was another time.
Finally, the police would arrive. Rather them than the frustrated villagers, the old man would insist.
The children and their mother have no respect for their father, the villagers would say.
Two weeks ago, in the wee hours of the morning, Mzolisi* and two friends were allegedly raping a woman when her mother arrived, armed with a knife. She allegedly stabbed the three. Mzolisi died.
But there is much more to this story for, woven between the hills of the tiny village of Qumbu, near Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, is a sordid history where women live in fear, alcohol abuse is rife and family bonds are in tatters.
On Tuesday, people from the six villages that fall under Swartwater gather to support the woman, who now faces a charge of murder and two of attempted murder. The community hall is filled with more than 100 people, mostly women, who sing and speak and cry.
“We are here to support this woman who had the strength to do this. It has been years women have lived in fear and not a single man could do anything about it. Women in this village have been raped and murdered. There are cases where perpetrators are still walking among us. God gave this woman strength to do what many couldn’t, to protect her child and this village,” says Thobeka Mhlom.
She adds the best way to follow in her footsteps is for every woman to buy a sjambok, a whistle, and a knife. “We are tired of being victimised, raped and killed by the monsters we live with here. Now is the time for women to take this problem and fix it. We must use the whistle to call for help. Neighbours who hear it must respond by bringing their sjamboks and knives.”
The hall heaves in agreement.
The elderly share their stories, and younger people stand up and pledge to collect money to ensure that Nolwazi* (the “warrior woman”, they now call her) and her daughter Zanele* receive the best lawyers and counselling available.
Nolwazi begins to cry because of the outpouring of support but by that time many of the men have left the hall. The women, and a few of the remaining men, then discuss arrangements for travel to Lady Frere on October 9, when their heroine will face the magistrate.
In the village, many speak openly of that night, adding their own twists to the tale.
Some look for anything that might have pointed to Mzolisi, Thando* and Mongezi* one day violating a woman like this. They stole. They got drunk often.
But what brings hands to mouths in horror is that Zanele and Mzolisi were cousins. Mzolisi’s family moved to Qumbu when the boy was still a toddler.
“They literally grew up together. Their mothers call each other cousin and, when Zanele’s family arrived in the village, the two families were inseparable,” said Nolulamile Davali, a close friend of Zanele’s family.
Two weeks ago, Nolwazi was woken by the ringing of her phone, a call from her mother. She found it hard to wake up — it was 1:13 in the morning. But a second ring forced her to take it.
“My mother said my daughter was being raped by three boys. I was afraid and had second thoughts, but no mother would leave her child to the wolves,” she said.
Nolwazi cuts a tall, heavy-set figure. She towers above the many women and men who have gathered outside her two-roomed home. Her hands are weathered and her eyes are red with exhaustion.
“I am tired. I am constantly thinking about what happened and what could have happened. I have this heaviness on my shoulders that comes and goes but I have to be strong,” she said.
After Nolwazi received the call, she went to her kitchen cutlery drawer and took out a knife. The young men are notorious for causing trouble in the village and she needed protection, she reasoned. But first, she called the police.
The Dubeni police station, which serves the Swartwater area, is more than an hour away. In the village, the common perception is that if the police do respond to a complaint it takes many hours.
A visit to the police station after 5pm midweek found a single police constable on duty, wearing sandals and chinos. There was no police vehicle in sight or any other officer. The constable refused to provide any details about their capacity or why there was no one else at the station.
Community member Nosakhiwo Mbama says the village requested a mobile police station but they were told there were no resources for that.
“The Queenstown station is closer to us but, when we call them for help, we are referred to the Dubeni station. If you call at midday, if you are lucky, it will arrive at night. How are we supposed to be protected when we have no police station?” she asks.
Mbama, like other village members, believe scant police presence in their village exacerbates an already violent society — which drove one woman to take matters into her own hands.
When Nolwazi called the police station, there was no answer. She decided to go herself, accompanied by a small group. But only Nolwazi entered the house, her phone torch searching the spaces inside for her daughter.
Zanele says she doesn’t remember much. When she speaks she is hunched over and her words land on her slender arms, which are crossed and covered by a floral viscose top.
The 28-year-old has bruises on her face and around her eyes.
“I spent a lot of time with Mzolisi and Thando because they are family.”
She looks at her mother.
“Mama, do you remember the beige pants I had which looked like they were a man’s cut? I lent them to Mzolisi a few weeks ago. He really liked them and he needed something to wear,” she says.
At the edge of the village facing a mountain is the face-brick home where Mzolisi grew up. Across the footpath is the house where the alleged rape and stabbings occurred.
Mbulelo*, the father of the deceased, has little to say and asks one of his grandchildren to wake his wife, Nokwazi*.
She leads the way to the house where her son died. Her one leg is weak and so is her health, she says. The 65-year-old calls out to her husband to open the door of the yellow house. Mbulelo trudges along and battles to unlock the bottom half of the door.
Inside, the house is neat, as if recently cleaned. The four rooms, with tattered furniture, show no sign of the events of two weeks ago.
“Yes, my son was trouble but this was not what he deserved,” Nokwazi says.
She is referring to the many times that he stole money from the spaza shop, how he physically abused his father and the restraining orders they had brought against him.
Nokwazi walks through the house and points out where her son and Zanele were found.
“My heart is broken.”
Mbulelo sits quietly at the furthest side of the dining room table with his head bowed, as if asleep.
The village headman, Malibongwe Ntshentshe, has often been called on to intervene in the family matters.
“The state of that home is beyond our help. The children there are just like the mother, they drink a lot, steal from this man’s shop and abuse him. These young men had no respect for him, they did as they pleased and, when I have been called to intervene, the mother will fiercely protect these boys.
“The father told me once that he would rather have the police called than his son disciplined by the village,” Ntshentshe says.
When Olwethu*, who is the elder sister of the deceased, arrives, she tells of the heavy drinking that had taken place on the day of the killing. By the time she was called, her brother was dead.
“Many people are angry about what happened, but my aunt will always be my aunt. I forgave her the same night. She had her reasons for what she did. It is painful for my family but we need to forgive.”
Though Olwethu believes her family will take her cue in trying to rebuild the family, murmurs in the village suggest a possibly different ending, in which Mzolisi’s brothers could take matters into their own hands when they arrive for the funeral on Saturday.
Outside the yellow house is a peach tree, which is starting to blossom, hinting at the change of season.
“This is what we do in this village. Something happens, we are shocked and angry, but in a few weeks we will have forgotten about it and moved on with our lives,” an elderly woman says.
The old man shuffles along from the house, the wind pushing and pulling at his precarious frame. Asked about his feelings about the fate of his son, he clutches at his chest. It hurts from where he walked into a pole on the night of the alleged rape.
“These things are difficult,” he says simply as he slowly makes his way home.