Gentle man's brutal murder turns spotlight on intolerance
Thapelo Makhutle’s body was found by his best friend in his tiny room in the small Kalahari town of Kuruman in the Northern Cape on Saturday morning, June 9. He had been beheaded, his genitals hacked off, his tongue cut out and his testicles stuffed into his mouth.
Makhutle’s best friend, Mosiami Boyang, said the night before Makhutle was brutally murdered was just a normal Friday night out with friends in Seoding village outside Kuruman.
“We were at the Tshesa Nyama tavern having a few drinks,” Boyang said. “Thapelo and I would always go outside together and say ‘did you see what that girl is wearing?’ or ‘did you see that cute guy?’”
A man approached Makhutle asking about his sexuality – everyone in Seoding knew he was gay. An argument ensued but was quickly ended. After that, Makhutle left the tavern without saying goodbye.
“Later, I wanted to go to Thapelo’s room to see him, but I knew he had to work the next day so I decided not to bother him,” Boyang said. “I walked right past his room. I wonder what would have happened if I had gone inside then?”
The next morning Boyang went to Makhutle’s room. It was a complete mess. Only when he peered around the damaged door and lifted the blankets at his feet did he see his friend’s bloody, mangled body.
A warm, loving human being
It is almost three weeks after the incident. Makhutle’s R300-a-month room is not a crime scene anymore, but the landlord’s daughter tells us: “No one will want to stay here after this.”
There is not much to show us, but Boyang pushes the door open like he did when he discovered his friend’s corpse. He wants to make sure that we know a warm, loving human being once lived here. Makhutle’s tiny room has a dirty, cracked window, concrete floors and one exposed light bulb hanging from the ceiling.
Apart from the pained expression on Boyang’s face, there is no evidence left that this had once been Makhutle’s room.
“That is where his bed was. This is where he cooked,” said Boyang, his voice almost a whisper. “This is where his body was lying. This is where the blood was, with footprints over here.”
Outside in the dark we hear residents walking along the dusty roads, most of them on their way home from work; others – the miners – are on their way to work. With nothing to buffer the sound, voices carry over the dry, stark landscape. Dog barks make their way to us over the houses. Donkeys and goats move out of the road to make way for cars. Some do not move fast enough for the taxis.
“He was gentle, fun and friendly. He was a community boy,” Boyang said as his voice broke into a laugh. “We would go out and he would try to dance. I would tell him: ‘You have no rhythm, man!’”
It is the grisly details of how 23-year-old Makhutle was murdered that have stunned the conservative Kuruman community. Many believe the murderer was sending out a crude message to gay men: if you want to be a woman, I will make you one.
“When Jesus comes back the dead will rise up and walk with him, but how will Thapelo be able to do that? Will he walk as a man or a woman?” said a resident, Cate Dikgetse, who lives near Makhutle’s room.
Rooted in cultural traditions and religious beliefs, many residents of Kuruman are deeply conservative. Gay and lesbian people may be tolerated on the surface, but they are not accepted by everyone.
They are also identified by their sexual orientation. Dikgetse said: “When a gay or lesbian person walks down the street, people say: ‘There he is, that is a gay.’”
In the 224 rural villages that surround Kuruman the conservative beliefs of old still dominate.
Shaine Griqua, director of Legbo, a Northern Cape gay rights organisation for which the slain Makhutle also volunteered, said if one walked around the streets of Kuruman and its surrounding villages “seven out of 10 people you speak to will say that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex is immoral, ungodly and unAfrican”.
In 2010 Legbo conducted informal research into the practice of midwives in the John Taolo Gaetsewe district, where Kuruman is situated.
“We interviewed 90 midwives … 88 of them said when a child with ambiguous genitalia is born they will twist the child’s neck, killing it, because it is a product of a bewitched or cursed family,” Griqua said.
The mother would be told that her child was stillborn.
The midwives had done this “over a number of years” because it was their “cultural belief”.
Penetrating this barrier of conservative beliefs to encourage acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people would take “education, education, education”, Griqua said, adding that numerous other incidents of discriminatory attacks had occurred in the region.
In 2010 a principal at a school in Ga-Ntatelang village near Kuruman undressed a six-year-old child, who had ambiguous genitalia but preferred to use the girls’ toilets, and forced the child to use the boys’ toilets instead.
In March this year Keletile Mabilo (28), a transgender woman and a friend of Makhutle, was attacked at the same tavern he was at on the night he was murdered.
“I was there with another transgender friend,” Mabilo said. “A guy approached us and asked if he can join us. We didn’t usually drink with those guys, so why were they asking to join us now? We predicted that trouble was on the way.”
A fight began. No one tried to intervene. “A guy bit me on my cheek and shoulder. There was blood all over me,” she said.
What is more alarming is the reaction of many police officers, as well as clinic staff, to the victims of these attacks when they seek help.
A man who was gang-raped by a group of men in a corrective rape scenario in 2009 was told by police “you deserve it because you’re gay”, Griqua said.
“Clinic staff will say: ‘Why are you gay anyway?’”
Word of God
It is the reason why many attacks are not reported, he said.
DP Motseonageng is the head pastor of the Christian Full Gospel Church of God in Mothibistad, just outside Kuruman. He preaches to up to 700 people every Sunday. The establishment has 14 satellite churches in other villages.
Although he has never directly preached against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people, he said the “word of God” stated clearly that this “behaviour” was immoral.
“When God created man he created male and female. He said be fruitful and multiply. How can a man and a man multiply?” he asked. “The church is like a hospital and I see being gay as a sickness, so you must come to church so we can help you.”
We wanted to see where Makhutle was buried. A headstone does not yet mark the place where he was laid to rest on June 16 in Bendel village, outside Kuruman – the place where he grew up. Stones have been stacked on top of the grave.
Makhutle’s friends nicknamed him “Thabling” because of his sharp sense of style, his awareness of colour, his love of accessories and his obsession with Louis Vuitton.
Makhutle had an information technology diploma, but he worked as a sales adviser for a furniture store in Kuruman.
A senior manager at the store, who asked to remain anonymous, said she received a call from one of Makhutle’s friends, who was sobbing and said “something was wrong with Thapelo”.
“I went with one of the drivers to his house because we thought maybe he was sick and we could take him to hospital,” she said. A bystander pulled the blanket off his body when she got there. “I know I saw it, but I can’t explain clearly what I saw. I was in so much shock. All I can say is that he was slaughtered like an ox.
“I thought he was wearing red pants, but then later I realised that it was red flesh that I saw down there.
“I remember seeing this piece of meat coming out here by his neck and thinking ‘what is that?’… Later I heard his testicles had been stuffed into his mouth and I clicked. Not even someone possessed by demons can do something like that to another human being.”
Gay rights in Kuruman
Makhutle “was like a son to me”, his co-worker, Miemie Mocwane, said. “Thapelo loved to entertain himself … I would tell him not to go out on Friday night because he had to work on Saturday.
“The week before he died he was so quiet. I asked him why and he just laughed. He was a good person, always laughing … why would anyone do such a thing to him?”
The Northern Cape Non-governmental Organisation Coalition’s co-ordinator, Charmaine van den Heever, said it was undeniable that Makhutle’s death had at least started conversations about gay rights in Kuruman.
Gay rights activists and supporters descended on Kuruman “in their numbers” for Makhutle’s memorial service two weeks ago, she said, some travelling from as far as Cape Town.
“They were showcasing, that’s for sure … man, you should have seen it, they were dressed to the nines.”
In the festive and supportive atmosphere that fell on the town “people came out of the closet, people who we all knew were lesbian or gay but had been hiding [it] their whole lives”, said one resident.
Van den Heever said conservatism was a feature of rural villages in the area. “You can go to a village and talk about gays and lesbians and the people there will look at you as if to say: ‘What are you talking about?’”
Makhutle’s death had “forced people to start talking about it”.
“If we carry on talking about it, then maybe Thapelo’s death will not have been completely in vain.”
Almost three weeks after the incident a man appeared in the Mothibistad Magistrate’s Court near Kuruman, facing charges for Makhutle’s murder, according to his friend, Mabilo, who attended the court hearing. The case has been postponed to July 3.
Local police had not responded to questions at the time of publication.
A town where people stick to their own kind
Kuruman’s Anglican “Cathedral in the Kalahari”, which opened in 1838, can still be hired for weddings at a cost of R1000.
It was English missionaries Robert Moffat and his wife, Mary, who put Kuruman on the map. They supervised the construction of the cathedral and translated the Bible into Setswana, printing 2 000 copies of it in 1857 – the first to be printed in Africa.
The couple established a mission in Kuruman in 1820 and irrigated a valley below another attraction, a natural fountain called the Eye, creating a dam, gardens, storerooms and a school.
Today the beauty of the Eye is drowned out by the shouts of pedestrians, noisy trucks and the barks of stray dogs.
Charmaine van den Heever, co-ordinator of the Northern Cape Non-Governmental Organisations Coalition, which conducts education on HIV/Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases in the district, said “there is much work to be done here”.
The approximately 200 000 people living in Kuruman “are still deeply divided”, she said.
“The whites live in town, the coloureds live in Wrenchville village and the blacks live in all the other villages. People stick to their own kind here. This place has problems … drug and alcohol abuse is high, teenage pregnancy is high, HIV/Aids infections are high.”
The district also has the highest incidence of syphilis in South Africa. “There is a big market for prostitution because of the mine workers and the truck drivers using the major transport corridor nearby.”
Kuruman is surrounded by manganese and iron-ore mines, but development was happening slowly and people lived in poverty, she said. It is “everyone’s dream to get a mine job”.
SA hate crimes still prevalent
Despite laws protecting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people, attacks on them remain disturbingly prevalent in South Africa.
In 2008 Eudy Simelane, a 31-year-old Banyana Banyana football player, was raped and murdered in KwaThema, Gauteng.
She was the first well-known lesbian to become a victim of what has been labelled an “epidemic of hate crimes”.
Three years later, lesbian activist Noxolo Nogwaza (24) was stoned and stabbed to death in the same township.
In the most recent attack, a 22-year-old lesbian woman was shot dead in her home in Nyanga in the Western Cape on Monday.