Broken hearts as Stella reels from femicide

“Wat sal verander teen die tyd dat ons alles al vergeet het [What will have changed by the time we’ve forgotten about it all]?” — Reverend Willem Vermaak

Two cherub-like figures, a boy and girl, smiling lovingly at each other, faced Lalla. “Love is … the look that says it all,” the poster read. A string of hearts stretched across the passage. Even the “welcome” signs on the boarding house doors were heart-shaped. Beside the stairwell, oversized pink and black pillows on a pink Rmattress spoke of “everything and nothing” exchanges between the girls at the Esterhuysen hostel.

But Lalla did not see any part of this scene. The hostel matron would find her lifeless body hanging from the railing, feet dangling just above the clutch of mountain bikes neatly lined up in the stairwell. Later that morning, police would find the body of her bosom friend, Marna, with a nylon strap around her neck in the bathroom.

[Sharnelle Hough was found hanging from the hostel staircase railing. (Wikus de Wet)]

At face value, Stella is a cutout of 1960s small-town South Africa, where children greet their elders prefixed with an “oom” or a “tannie”, fences seem primarily aimed at keeping stray livestock out and black people are peripheral figures when they visit “die dorp”.

On Saturday morning the small, quiet cattle-farming community near Vryburg in North West, with its population of just over 4 000 people, woke up to the news that two teenage girls had been found dead at the Stella High School hostel.

The night before, 17-year-old Sharnelle “Lalla” Hough and her bestie, 16-year-old Marna Engelbrecht, had been spotted in Vryburg, enjoying dinner together.

Instead of heading home that weekend, the pair had arranged to spend the night at their hostel, where they shared a room.

The next day, both were due to represent the school at netball in nearby Koster.

The girls had asked the matron not to lock the main door to the hostel, saying they were waiting for a relative who was going to drop off clothes. When this had been done, the girls said, they would inform the matron so that she could lock up. The matron fell asleep.

The two didn’t show up for the team bus the next morning.

Nearly a week later, black ribbons are tied along the staircase at the hostel. On the first landing, two faint lines on the bannister seem scant evidence of the horror that played out here.

Police investigations this week suggested that Lalla and Marna were strangled to death by bare hands before an attempt was made by their killer to pass off the deaths as suicides.

All this happened a few steps away from the matron’s room but, according to a hostel staff member, she had heard nothing.

The accused is Lalla’s former boyfriend, 19-year-old Xander Bylsma, himself a former pupil of Stella High.

[Xander Bylsma (19) was arrested in connection with the murder of the two teenage girls]

Bylsma appeared in the Vryburg magistrate’s court this week, where his case was postponed to August 6. He did not apply for bail and was remanded in custody.

You magazine reported that Captain Charlize van der Linden, spokesperson for Vryburg police, had confirmed that Bylsma had confessed.

The chairperson of the school governing body, Richard Hobson, said the murder of the girls had left the school community traumatised and in shock.

He said no one could have prepared them for the trauma and that pupils and teachers were taking it one day at a time. They were receiving intensive counselling and social workers would be kept at the school for as long as necessary to help pupils and staff come to terms with the deaths, said Hobson.

“We don’t know how to cope with a tragedy like this and, being such a close-knit community, we know everyone in the community and it’s very traumatising situation. It’s going to take a while to get over it,” said Hobson.

On Tuesday, he said the school was trying to get back to “as normal as possible” and that lessons had resumed.

When the Mail & Guardian visited the school late on Wednesday afternoon, a group of about 10 girls dressed in their training gear were making their way to the school’s netball court to practise.

The death of the teen girls has again shone a spotlight on commonplace femicide in the country, with weekly reports of women being killed by a husband or boyfriend.

In a statement this week, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga referred to the killing of the girls as “senseless”.

“It is deeply concerning that our young girls are dying in this manner. This is truly a tragedy and shows, as society, we need to work with our young boys in order to better equip them to effectively deal with relationship dynamics.”

On Tuesday, North West education MEC Sello Lehari visited the school and promised that his department would help to strengthen security measures at the hostel.

Most of Stella’s residents were reluctant to speak openly about how the deaths had affected the town.

A mother of a grade nine pupil at the school said it had been painful to learn about what had happened. “It is hard for the community to deal with this. My daughter has been crying over this.”

Other people said they had many questions, which they doubted would ever be answered.

“Why did he do it?” asked an elderly woman, who said she had often seen the girls around town.

The news of the girls’ murder soon spread to Vryburg — 51km from Stella — and people there also said they were shocked by the news.

“I did not know the girls personally but I [would] see them when they came to eat here and, after learning that they had died, I was really shocked,” said the manager of a restaurant in Vryburg.

“Everyone is talking about it here in Vryburg, because we are like one community with people from Stella. We all know each and it’s unfortunate that this has happened in our community.”

A Stella businessperson, who asked to remain anonymous, added: “It is a shock to the community. A lot of people don’t want to speak because they fear they will say the wrong things.”

Because the community was so close-knit, he said, no one wanted to be seen to be taking sides.

But it was known that Bylsma had a “temper”, he said, and claimed it was not the first time he had been in trouble for harassing girls.

“Hy het al ’n paar klappe uitgedeel [He’s hit a few people in his time],” he said.

A cashier at a Stella shop also claimed Bylsma had anger issues. She said it was unfortunate that people had failed to recognise the red flags in time.

“It’s like no one cared about him, and look now what has happened. People talked behind his back about his anger issues and no one thought of helping him,” she said.

Reverend Willem Vermaak, of the Dutch Reformed Church in Stella, hopes the town’s residents will learn from this ordeal.

[Reverend Willem Vermaak says parents can honour the girls’ memory by teaching their children respect. Wikus de Wet)]

“What is going to change in Stella after this traumatic event? That is the question we should be asking,” said Vermaak.

He said the events of May 26 go back to how family units operate and what lessons parents impart to their children.

Parents were too quick to give material things to their children and spoil them instead of teaching them respect.

“We have too much money and we spoil our children, and we are not doing justice by them. If we don’t teach our children respect at home, they won’t be able to show when they go out to the community,” said Vermaak.

Bylsma’s mother told Netwerk24 at court that the arrest of her only child, who had been good at academics and sport at school, had broken her.

Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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