A little girl's life changes for ever -- and the lawyers get richer

Nine-year-old Noxolo Yalezo doesn’t smile very often. When she looks in your direction, you are not sure if it’s you she’s looking at. Her enlarged right eye remains unfocused.

Noxolo is living with her four siblings in a shack in Khayelitsha’s Harare Section. She is the second-oldest child, but her understanding of the world around her is more like that of two-year-old Vuyani, her younger brother.

Her attention was focused mostly on baby Thombozuko suckling at his mother’s breast when the Mail & Guardian went to visit her this week. Her fingernails, painted pink, moved around restlessly.

When asked what her hobbies are, she darted into the bedroom, separated from the small lounge by a large window pane, without a reply. Once or twice she peeked through the curtain at the strange visitors. She did not emerge again.

Noxolo was two years old when her life changed forever. One day in May 1992, a car hit her family’s vehicle as they were travelling in Khayelitsha. She sustained massive head injuries, which means she will need special, expensive care for the rest of her life.

But instead of receiving all the money she so desperately needed, the child was one of the victims targeted by the Cape law firm of H Mohamed & Associates, accused in the Cape High Court this week of siphoning off large portions of the pay-outs it secured from the road accident fund for indigent Cape Flats accident victims. The girl’s head injuries make her incapable of testifying, so her father, Freddie Yalezo, filed an affidavit in court on her behalf.

Yalezo is joining the editor of noseWEEK, Martin Welz, in his application to have documents seized from the law firm. The court papers say the firm never discussed details of the claim it lodged with the road accident fund, which paid out R600 000 for Noxolo. Freddie Yalezo says in July last year one of the law firm’s attorneys, John Mulligan, called him in and demanded he “sign a document which would give him the power to settle Noxolo’s claim.

“I was not happy signing this document, but he told me that if I did not do so, he could not finalise the claim.” Yalezo says he got R600 000. But Welz showed the court evidence that the firm made out three cheques to Yalezo, one of which, for R150 000, was diverted to Mohamed’s pocket.

Cynthia Yalezo, the girl’s mother, says she remembers nothing of the crash after waking up in hospital. Noxolo was unconscious, she didn’t breathe. For several weeks Noxolo was in the Red Cross Children’s Hospital, and later she went Groote Schuur Hospital as an outpatient. Her mother says doctors told her vessels in Noxolo’s brain were ruptured and had damaged the brain.

They told her the girl needed to be taught again how to sit, crawl and stand up. “We used to send her around the corner to the shop. After the accident she couldn’t talk any more. She was a baby again.” Cynthia Yalezo says people from H Mohamed & Associates came to the hospital every day to take statements and make inquiries.

When her husband was discharged, the lawyers even arranged for him to be picked him up by car. Freddie Yalezo lost his job because of the accident. Today he is still limping, although he has managed to restart his life by becoming a self-employed businessman. The years after the accident were tough for the family.

Cynthia Yalezo says there was no money, and Noxolo suddenly needed extra attention and care. The family borrowed money, hoping the lawyers would keep their promises. Finally Freddie Yalezo went to see the legal firm several times to inquire about their case, and in June 1997 he was paid out for his injuries. However, there were certain deductions made which, the family says, were not explained.

Freddie Yalezo told the Cape High Court this week that the firm paid him only R110 000, and refused to divulge the actual pay-out from the road accident fund. He got another attorney to extract the information from H Mohamed & Associates, which eventually admitted in writing that the settlement had been R184 000.

Cynthia Yalezo says the family never saw any documents from the lawyers. They were never told what they could expect. They were just told “the case would take a very long time”. She tried to sent Noxolo to an ordinary school in Khayelitsha together with her oldest daughter, Bhelukazi. However, that did not work out. “The girl is not right. She just goes off. She’s a handful.”

Now Noxolo is attending a special school in Guguletu, dozens of kilometres from home. Freddie Yalezo says he reported his experiences to the Law Society. “My experience at the hands of the society is indicative of the problems facing poor and vulnerable members of the public when dealing with persons of authority, including attorneys.”

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