Scapegoat for a desperate community

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

Rowan du Preez was an albino and petty criminal who lived in Mfuleni on the Cape Flats. In 2012, he was kidnapped and necklaced, dying later in hospital. Police said his last words had implicated a local social justice activist, Angy Peter, her husband and two others. They were tried for his murder and found guilty, but they insist on their innocence and their appeal is pending. A new book by Simone Haysom delves into the case. This is an edited extract.

All the public traces that Rowan du Preez left in the world were bureaucratic, official and disturbing. Ten arrests and three successful prosecutions in his 22 years, including a spell at a youth reformatory. Documents in which he was sometimes known as Simphiwe Ndevu, sometimes simply as Roy, though he was most commonly called Rowan. There was one picture of him in print, taken at an odd angle, at a distance and out of focus. He was carrying a backpack and wore a zip-up jacket and a white bucket hat. He was either scowling or straining to hear what a companion was saying.

According to Rowan’s aunt,Veronica, when he was born,on January 28 1989, his mother was dismayed to find that her baby was albino. She wanted to leave him behind at the hospital but her sister wouldn’t let her. In Cape Town’s townships albinos were sometimes called, colloquially and without affection, ingawu — monkeys. Some people believed their condition was the manifestation of a curse. During her pregnancy with Rowan, Yolanda lived in Site C in Khayelitsha, next door to an albino woman whom she was always teasing. Much later her family would say: “That’s the reason you had one.”

Veronica never knew who Rowan’s father was, and no matter how often she was asked, Yolanda would always deflect the question. Throughout his childhood Rowan, too, tried to get his mother to tell him. She never did. Du Preez was the name of the husband she had left before her pregnancy with Rowan. At times, frustrated with Rowan’s questions, Yolanda would point at her own father, John Ndevu, and say to the boy: “That man cares for you, he looks after you, feeds you. He’s your father.”

When Rowan was a child, the family would be told by neighbours, again and again, that he did “silly” things on the street. The family dismissed this as the normal behaviour of an energetic boy. The first time they knew he stole was after his mother’s boyfriend left her. He had been the family breadwinner and had provided for her children’s needs. Deprived of this income, Rowan took an armful of his mother’s clothes, sold them, and bought himself a new outfit.

Veronica tells a story about when John Ndevu ran into a neighbour, the father of another albino boy, at the local spaza shop. The neighbour took John Ndevuaside and said: “How is your boy doing? Because mine, he’s stout, he’s up to all kinds of mischief.”

“Mine too,” Rowan’s grandfather replied. “He’s up to nonsense.” The man’s comment reassured John Ndevu that Rowan’s behaviour was just a characteristic of albino boys. John Ndevu couldn’t tolerate anyone beating the boy. Rowan’s skin was pale, almost translucent, and his grandfather imagined it was stretched thin, too delicate to protect the child within.

As a teenager, Rowan was twice suspended from high school and finally expelled. The first suspension was for stealing from other children; the second, for stabbing an ex-girlfriend with a ballpoint pen. At the age of 14 he was expelled for slashing the tyres of the school principal’s car in retaliation against a teacher who had told his class about the girlfriend-stabbing incident. Rowan’s criminal record showed that at 15 he was arrested for theft and sent to reform school.

After his release from reform school, things deteriorated. His mother, recently promoted as the manager at a Zebro’s fast food outlet in Bellville, died suddenly of food poisoning. At 16 he was charged with the rape of a teenage girl, for which he was later given a suspended sentence of five years. Rowan’s criminal record noted that he went by two nicknames, though really they were one, given to him by other boys in Mannenberg: White/Nigger. This was inlaid on his skin, probably through makeshift methods, along with two other tattoos: a $ —possibly gang insignia —and the name of his mother, Yolanda.

Veronica was seemingly the only member of the Ndevu family to experience good fortune at that time. In 2010, she was awarded a plot in Bardale, Mfuleni. Independent, no longer married, working as a domestic for a white family in Somerset Westand now commanding a precious resource, a title deed, she was in a position to invite her father to live with her, along with the two orphaned boys now under his ward, her nephews Rowan and his younger brother Nathaniel.

They found that Mfuleni was like the other townships they’d lived in. Few people had jobs, groups of laughing children played on every street, and so that they might do so in safety, residents hacked deep troughs into the roads to slow cars down. Mfuleni was a place where young men were idle and everyone knew where the meth houses were.

When Angy Peter first saw Rowan, he was pinned face down on the bare hlabeni outside her house, and men from the neighbourhood were kicking him. She told them to stop. In turn, they told her to get lost. “What did he do to you?” she said. “Let the police handle it.”

Rowan, about 20 years old then, was pressed against the ground that had often been the site of public spectacles. It was a place that might have been reserved by the authorities for some well-intentioned purpose: a playground or a school. But Bardale was only two years old and the government hadn’t yet built any houses, let alone community amenities. So the field went untended. Low-hung sedans and minibus taxis cut across it. In winter cars got stuck in the soft, wet sand and men gathered to lay down planks and push. Here community meetings were rabble-roused by loudspeaker; here boys kicked a ball in summer and, more and more often, here criminals were beaten.

The men kicking Rowan were convinced that he had broken into one of their homes. Their possessions were still missing, which meant that the beating would continue.

If they didn’t stop, Angy warned them, she’d call the police and the authorities might be more interested in the assault than the theft. One of the men turned to her and shouted: “Impimpi!” This was one of the worst insults. Formerly reserved for apartheid collaborators, it now denoted a spy, a snitch, a traitor.

Angy left to alert the satellite police station, which consisted of two bored constables in a radio kiosk next to the taxi rank,the only way in walking distance to reach the police.

When she returned to the field she found that the police hadn’t responded but the small mob had dispersed. While she had been away Rowan’s grandfather had arrived. John Ndevu, a short man with bright eyes, had offered to pay the men for the goods they had lost,and so they’d handed him back his grandson.

Rowan’s grandfather was retired and probably received a state pension of, at most, R1 200 a month in 2012, and a child support grant of R270 for Nathaniel’s upbringing. Desiree (Rowan’s aunt), who often helped John Ndevu with cooking and cleaning, had a part-time job and still lived, as far as I could ascertain, in Manenberg. A family primarily living off one or two welfare grants was not unusual in Mfuleni;it would not have been easy for them to get by on about R1400 a month.

No one ever mentioned Rowan, educated only up to grade eight, having a job. In Mfuleni he soon developed close friendships with a group of boys, many of them also known to be dropouts and drug users. These boys explained to me that they would do piece jobs for their neighbours, small tasks involving manual labour, and they would skarrel, which meant doing any odd thing to survive —collecting scrap, selling things by the road, asking people for cash or occasionally mugging them to get it.

They were not quite a gang but a group of skollies, in which Rowan stood out. Among them was Rara, his best friend, and Roger. Both were slight and feline. Keeping the group company at local shebeens were girls who at different times were their girlfriends. One was a tall and long-necked teenager called Asavela.

With the move to Bardale, John Ndevu’s protectiveness continued. If Rowan stole, his grandfather let it be known that the injured party should come to him first and he would find a way to resolve matters.

The problem, Veronica came to understand at about this time, was that once you got a reputation for being stout, it didn’t matter what you actually did or didn’t do, people always came for you. Whenever anything went missing, it was always Rowan who was dragged out of his grandfather’s yard to account for it.

In turn John Ndevu would always try to stand between Rowan and punishment.

“His grandfather loved him too much,” said Nomawethu Mbewu, one of their neighbours. “He couldn’t be hard with that boy. He would pay any money to save him.”

Nomawethu believed Rowan was victimised for being an albino, and that, to make matters worse, he was motherless. He couldn’t draw on a woman’s tirade to shift the blame and quell the crowd when they came for him.

“Mamela [listen],” Nomawethu said to some of Rowan’s old friends in my hearing, “Who of you has a mother? And I won’t beat you if your mother is standing behind you, nê? But an old man? What can he do?”

The boys looked at the ground.

“I want to be clear every time these boys did wrong,” said Nomawethu, “it was always Roy who was being beaten up by the community.”

This is an extract from chapters three and five of The Last Words of Rowan du Preez: Murder and Conspiracy on the Cape Flats(Jonathan Ball). Simone Haysom is an independent researcher and writer

Simone Haysom

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