Nombuyiselo Nombewu was five years old when she last saw her mother, Mathapelo Shai. Her younger twin sisters also last saw their mother 10 years ago, shortly after their father’s death.
“They have been longing to meet her for a very long time now,” said Nombuyiselo’s grandmother, Susan Nombewu.
Nombuyiselo’s yearning to meet her mother would go unrealised.
On Mother’s Day, Nombuyiselo’s charred remains were discovered by a dog rummaging through a dump site in Jouberton Extension 7 in Klerksdorp.
That Friday Gogo Susan had sent the teenager to a neighbour, about 300m away, to borrow R50 to buy electricity in the extremely cold and drizzly afternoon.
She never returned.
Gogo Susan was horrified when she saw the remains of her granddaughter.
She said the 15-year-old was her Florence Nightingale – her guardian angel. “I still needed her very much in my life,” Gogo Susan says helplessly, hunched in a tattered chair and surrounded by mourners.
They have been streaming into the custard-coloured living room, covered with pictures of the Nombewu clan, many of them children and grandchildren. The grandmother sits surrounded by framed Bible scriptures and miniature effigies.
“I’m on medication for my high blood pressure, my diabetes, heart disease and spinal infection,” Gogo Susan says.
Her granddaughter was always the one to remind her to take her medication. “I just forget sometimes,” she murmurs. “Who will be there to remind me now?” She dabs her eyes with a damp handkerchief.
On that fateful night, when hours went by without a sign of Nombuyiselo, Gogo Susan grew concerned. She asked the twin sisters to look for her. They came back without their sister.
At about 8pm, as the cold set in, the matriarch asked her older grandson, Zamuxolo, to look for her missing grandchild.
As the night wore on and the cold bit deeper, the frail woman joined the search. Nothing.
“I became extremely weak and worried. She was always at home at that time of the evening,” Gogo Susan says.
While she was on the street corner at about 9pm, still looking out for her granddaughter, the suspect, who was later arrested, walked past and made conversation with her.
“While I was standing there, two people walked past. I couldn’t recognise the other person but I saw [name withheld] because I know him well.
“As they approached, he said to me: ‘What are you doing here so late in the evening?’ I told him I was looking for Nombuyiselo. I don’t know where she is.”
The man merely uttered “Huh,” and walked on. He would appear in the dock days later.
“I came back home and I called my daughters to alert them of Nombuyiselo’s disappearance.”
The search party commenced again the following day at 5am but there was still no sign of the Matlosana Secondary School grade 8 pupil.
“We couldn’t find her and at about 5pm we went to the police station to report her missing,” she said.
Early on Sunday morning, the family received a call from local police. Details were scant. The authorities were on their way to fetch the family.
As Gogo Susan was getting ready, her neighbour from down the road told her there was talk of a burnt body that had been found 236 steps away from her home.
The grandmother, who had acted as a mother to Nombuyiselo for most of her life, knew what this meant.
As she drew closer, people tried to stop her. She could not be stopped. It was her child.
“When I got there, it was her indeed,” she said.
The straight back hairstyle, the earrings, the remains of the umbrella she had been carrying. It was Nombuyiselo.
“They burnt my granddaughter like a dog,” she cried.
“I heard it was [name withheld] and had questions. He saw me standing and looking for Nombuyiselo yet he knew where she was. Why would he do such a painful thing to me? He grew up in front of me; he grew up with my children.”
She said Nombuyiselo died sad because she had not yet met her mother. “But now it will never happen,” she said, her sobbing drowning her speech.
“They just wanted to see her face, they wanted to hear her voice for a day, then let her be.”
Nombuyiselo’s body was discovered by a resident dumping garbage. He was alerted by his dog’s “strange actions”. The man, who asked for his identity not to be revealed, spoke to the Mail & Guardian this week, at the scene of the crime, a short distance from Nombuyiselo’s home.
A middle-aged man, who also requested anonymity, recounted that he heard “something drag past my yard” at about 3am.
“I was having a smoke because I was struggling to sleep. I heard the sounds and peeped through my window and noticed four figures pulling something, which I couldn’t make out. I decided to follow them at a distance and noticed them walk into the dump site.
“At that point I turned back because I didn’t want to put my life in danger. I didn’t know what was happening until the body was found in the morning.”
Nombuyiselo’s mother made it back to her family this week – to see her daughter’s alleged murderer in court.
Shai arrived at the Nombewu home two days after she was told the grim story about her daughter.
She wept uncontrollably when Nombuyiselo’s alleged killer emerged from the Klerksdorp Magistrate Court’s holding cells and was escorted to the dock of Courtroom A by an orderly.
She urged the harshest punishment for those responsible for Nombuyiselo’s death.
Shai lives in a shack in Eikenhof settlement in Johannesburg South.
“I wanted to visit them or they visit me but I didn’t have money because I’m unemployed,” she said. She also cites family conflicts as another reason for the lack of contact. “But their older sister [Nosipho Nombewu, 21] visited them at least twice a year.”
Nozipho, who lives in central Johannesburg, found their mother about two years ago.
The ultimate betrayal
Half of all murders of women are carried out by their partners and South Africa has the highest rate of those, according to a 2015 policy brief by the Alan J Flisher Centre for Public Mental Health.
This is not new. In 2004, the South African Medical Research Council said that every six hours a woman is killed by her partner. Its 2012 follow-up study reflected a decrease, in line with the general decrease in murder rates.
But a woman still dies every eight hours at the hands of her partner, who can be a (former) husband or (former) boyfriend.
A Statistics South Africa health survey published last week revealed that 21% of women over 18 in South Africa have experienced violence at the hands of their partner.
These studies confirm that black African women from rural areas, and in lower-income families, are at the greatest risk of intimate partner violence. The most dangerous moment for a woman trapped in a violent relationship is when she leaves the partner. – Ruth Hopkins