/ 16 September 2011

It takes a village to fail a child

It Takes A Village To Fail A Child

On a Friday afternoon in July 15-year-old Muofhe Ndadza* was caught by two young boys in ill-fitting clothes she had stolen from a house in Tshilapfene, a village in Thohoyandou, Limpopo. She had no idea of the physical and emotional nightmare she was about to endure.

The boys dragged Ndadza to the scene of the crime, where one of her captors, a 17-year-old distant cousin, called his father with the news. The man instructed the boys to hold the girl until he arrived home.

The cousin stripped Ndadza of the stolen clothes and bound her ankles and arms before launching what turned out to be a six-hour assault, a portion of which he filmed with a friend’s cellphone once his father took over the reins.

An eight-minute segment of the footage, seen by the Mail & Guardian, shows the girl’s naked body up close, and then, the adult accused repeatedly beating the bleeding, naked teenager with a hammer in the face and on her arms, shins and knees as she stumbles helplessly in futile attempts to deflect the blows. At various times in the footage a young girl in school uniform, a woman and two men can be seen in the background watching the horrific torture take place.

The footage is so brutal that one rape councillor in the area said she felt like she needed counselling after reviewing it — the first time she has felt this way in more than 10 years of working with sexually abused victims.

According to court documents gathered from the victim, her parents, two police officers and a probation officer, the police found Ndadza naked and still tied up when they arrived at the relatively remote Tshilapfene home later that evening. They arrested her for housebreaking and took her to the Thohoyandou Police Station. Later, they say, the police took her to the Phanana Clinic for examination before taking her back to the station, where she spent the night.

According to Ndadza’s mother, the staff at the clinic had recommended that she be admitted to the hospital, but she was not. This version correlates with that of the troubled child’s probation officer, Victor Ndou, who claims he was only called at 2pm the day after the arrest and shown a document confirming that Ndadza had been taken to the clinic on the night of the attack. He also said the police told him she had been attacked by a mob and, because of that, they could not open a case of child abuse.

Later that Saturday, Ndadza’s mother said, she arrived at the police station and escorted her daughter to the Tshilidzini Hospital. Ndadza stayed there overnight before going to a youth detention facility, where she spent a full week after being charged with theft.

It was not until five days later, on Wednesday July 27, that the adult accused, apparently nicknamed Shapa Ntsha Inyele (beat a dog until it shits), was arrested; his son was taken in for questioning the next day.

When Ndadza was released from the detention centre the following Monday, August 1, her probation officer was apparently not informed, resulting in the omission of the social worker visits, counselling and follow-up examinations the officer would have recommended.

On Women’s Day August 9, during a “community dialogue” in Tshilapfene convened by the police and the village head man to discuss the incident, two police officers urged the community to delete their cellphone videos of the attack — which had been circulated widely — instead of confiscating them. The perpetrators’ cellphones would only be confiscated 10 days later.

The police’s official version of events, as delivered by Limpopo police spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi, differs wildly from the above. Mulaudzi told the M&G that the police did not arrest Ndadza but took her immediately to Tshilidzini Hospital, given the degree of her injuries. The father and son, he said, were “arrested on the same day”, charged with assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm and released the adult on R1 500 bail and the minor on warning. “The information I have is that they were arrested the same day. They could not have been left there after assaulting someone like that,” Mulaudzi repeated.

Failing a child, again
Staff at the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme, a one-stop trauma centre that assists victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse, insist that it was only on August 16, more than three weeks after the brutal incident, that Ndadza began receiving the requisite intervention. It was also more than two weeks after her release from the youth correctional facility where she had spent a week.

If the several witness accounts hold up in court, this will not be the first time Ndadza has been let down by the police.

At some point last year, when staff at the Donald Fraser Trauma Centre first informed the police of the child’s sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather, their first reaction was to verify the reports with her mother, who, at that point, denied any knowledge of them. She even went so far as to defend her husband. (“He didn’t enter her,” she said, when interviewed by the M&G last week.)

The police allegedly left without arresting the child’s stepfather, who, according to Ndadza’s testimony, had already forced himself on her once before. He would only be arrested some days later, after Ndadza was discharged from the trauma centre.

According to Ndadza’s mother, the molestation triggered bouts of psychotic behaviour in her daughter. “She was fine before, now she can just [break into] a stranger’s house and watch TV,” she said, adding that the girl has amassed three theft charges since last year’s sexual abuse.

The police appear to be closing ranks but the staff at the victim empowerment programme stand by the version of events corroborated by Ndadza’s mother, father and Ndou, the probation officer. If their statements about what unravelled are accurate, police effectively contravened section 110 of the Sexual Offences Act, which relates to correctional officials reporting child abuse that is either sexual, causes injury or amounts to deliberate neglect. The physical harm suffered by Ndadza, as noted in her medical records, includes severe tissue damage (in the legs and arms), torn tissue (ear), head and lip ­swelling, two broken teeth (with a third one loose) and swelling on her thighs and arms.

Advocate Bethuel Manyuha, director of public prosecutions at Thohoyandou High Court, has since escalated the initial assault charges against the father and son to attempted murder. Mulaudzi confirmed this.

The father and son could also be charged in terms of the Films Publication Act, the Sexual Offences Act and the Criminal Procedure Act for, among other things, being in possession of child pornography, distributing images of a sexual nature involving a child and revealing the identity of an accused or witness who is under 18.

Video goes viral
Nearly everyone in Thohoyandou with a cellphone and the requisite technology has seen the video, which has since spread to other parts of the country. The clips, some more than 15 minutes long, have been distributed so widely that strangers meeting Ndadza’s mother for the first time have commented on the physical resemblance between mother and daughter. There were even rumours circulating in the town that DVDs of the footage were being sold by Thohoyandou bootleg vendors under the title Mbava (Thief). Bootleggers approached by the M&G had indeed heard of the title, although they claimed not to have any copies.

The people of Thohoyandou pride themselves on building respectable houses. Drive in any direction from the single-storey, corrugated-roof storefronts that comprise its CBD and you will be confronted by spacious, even palatial abodes. Ndadza’s sustained humiliation reminds us that a house is not a home.

The events of July 22 have added strain to an already fractured relationship between Ndadza and her mother, who sustains her seven children with child-income grants. Besides last week’s brief, terse exchange during the M&G‘s visit, they had only seen each other once since the young girl was arrested. Tshilipfeni, where the assault occurred and Khubvi, where she lives with her father, grandmother and a few siblings, are at opposite ends of Thohoyandou’s outskirts.

Ndadza comes from a broken home. A visit to the windswept ­family residence where her father lives confirms this. The second of her mother’s seven children, Ndadza moved back with her father following the sexual assault incident that culminated in her stepfather’s brief imprisonment — he was apparently released after nine months and the subsequent collapse of her mother’s second marriage.

It is a humble home, flanked by two basic matchbox-type structures, one incomplete, and two small thatched-roof rondavels. Her grandmother and uncle sleep in the complete house while Ndadza, her father, his wife and some siblings share the rondavels, one of which doubles as a kitchen. It is an uneasy arrangement that doubtless contributes to her increasing habit of disappearing into the night.

In person, Ndadza is palpably grappling to return to an innocence she once knew. She has the childlike demeanour of a prepubescent girl, with a shyness that is perhaps exaggerated in the presence of strangers. But from beneath her dainty exterior a confident, even outgoing teenager breaks the surface. She wears tight jeans, blue nail polish peeks from her worn hiking sandals and her short, relaxed hair — in need of a retouch — rubs against a slim bandanna. At 15, she is probably older than most of the children in her grade seven class.

Nothing more, nothing less
Perhaps one of the most disconcerting parts of the horrific attack was the reaction of some villagers, who found the video entertaining, perhaps even erotic, or simply funny. But why that is the response is not something one can easily discuss without resorting to crass generalisations. What was obvious after speaking to as many people as possible in Thohoyandou was that the public was divided on the issue. Many viewed it as “a lesson well taught”, as “people here do not tolerate theft”. Her grandmother said some neighbours felt that Ndadza “deserved it because she is not a well-behaved person”.

But the overwhelming, almost unanimous sentiment was that inept policing, especially when it concerns rape and violent spousal abuse, religious conservatism and the dynamics of rural life all combine to fuel a culture of vigilantism and the suppression of women.

“When there is a suspicion of crime in this society, people tend to react violently. But with that I am also alluding to recent violent strikes and service delivery protests in other parts of the country,” said Tsoaledi Thobejane, a senior lecturer in gender studies at the University of Venda-based Institute for Gender and Youth Studies.

“So that speaks to the violent nature of our society in general, and Venda people can’t be separated from that because it has to do with our country’s history of violent subjugation perpetrated on us by the apartheid regime.

“While violence must be condemned, we have to appreciate the role that the laxity of police in acting timeously plays where crime is concerned. Police here don’t seem to intervene adequately.

“In other countries police are trained to deal with psychosocial issues but here they are trained to arrest people and throw them in jail — nothing more, nothing less.”

In 2005 the South African Police Service and the Zion Christian Church in the Vhembe district, which encompasses Thohoyandou, joined forces on a project that, it is claimed, has reduced rape in the area by 7% compared to the previous year. The project is said to have changed “the landscape of rape” by using church rallies to spread awareness about rape hot spots and hand out pamphlets and T-shirts to about 57 000 people in an area with a population of about 1.2-million.

At the time, Fiona Nicholson, of the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme, expressed misgivings about a project that effectively sought to achieve a drop in rape reportage. “It is common knowledge internationally that the vast majority of rapes are not reported. The normal purpose of campaigns, therefore, is to encourage women to break the silence and report rape,” she said then.

Church members interviewed at the time by the M&G confirmed that the church did not encourage the reporting of rape, particularly when members were involved. The matter, they said, was usually dealt with internally by the church.

Gumula Foldrick, a counsellor at the victim empowerment programme, said reporting rape in rural areas like the Vhembe district continued to be a problem because people usually knew each other and preferred to engage in a family setting, which further compromised the victim. Ndadza’s ­situation was no different. Her mother revealed that, soon after her daughter was abused by her stepfather, she called a family meeting where she expected the child to shame her abuser, but instead the girl froze.

The fact that she has not taken her own life — although the thought has crossed her mind, she told a counsellor — and that she is considering returning to school for the first time since the torture (even though neighbourhood children have been making “hammer jokes”), speaks of a resilience in Ndadza, which one hopes will survive the trauma. She does not have much else. Even in her broken state, as she struggles to pick up herself again, she has not lost complete faith in humanity.

“Some people in my community have said that they will make sure this never happens again to anyone and that I should forgive him,” she said of her most recent tormentor. “He hasn’t asked me, though.”

Asked if she would forgive him, she momentarily dropped her index finger from her mouth, gave a half-smile — one that did not reveal her missing teeth – and said: “I would. If I didn’t, then I wouldn’t be forgiven in the future.”

*Not her real name. The M&G has not published the names of the victim’s mother, nor that of the accused to protect the identity of the children involved.

Kwanele Sosibo is the Eugene Saldanha fellow in inequality and social justice reporting, supported by CAF Southern Africa