No headstone for Aviwe – the woman a country forgot



Aviwe Wellem’s funeral started at 6am on September 14. The early morning air was pierced by the shrill cries of despair from the village.

The sun scorched the red earth under the blue and white tent where chief mourners sat next to the coffin.

More than 100 people gathered in the tent and among the three rondavels next to it.

They were there to give a fitting farewell to the 21-year-old woman, with the little that they have.

READ MORE: As SA rages, another woman is murdered

With murder and rape continuing with little consequence, the funeral took a different turn. It was not simply about Aviwe’s life that was cut short. It morphed into a mournful expression of a village that is in pain; villagers cried that it had been forgotten. They were battling to understand the scourge of violence engulfing them.

The pastor preached that he would be putting the Bible aside for this funeral.

Pastor Gilindoda Mqeke said the murder of Aviwe — raped and killed in the village of Gxara in Dutywa in the Eastern Cape — is a symptom of our society.

Nolungisile Mondileki mourns Aviwe Wellem. (Paul Botes/M&G)

“None of these murderers or rapists grow out of the grass, like weeds. These monsters come from our homes, they have parents and a community around them. They are accountable to someone at some point. Amen bazalwane. So what has our role been in bringing up these creatures?” Mqeke asked the crowd passionately.

The mourners, some sitting on cinder blocks — there were not enough chairs and no money to rent more — heaved in agreement.

“Today’s sermon will be about the situation in our country, not the Bible. We all know Jesus, right? We talk about Him, all the time. But today we must speak about the condition our country is in. Maybe it is because of the parenting, or the way our communities have disintegrated,” he said.

The duvet on which her body was discovered dries on the fence is a chilling reminder of what occurred in the rural village of Gxara. (Paul Botes/M&G)

With the crowd in his hands, Mqeke went on: “Our world has now become one where, when a husband disagrees with this wife, he kills all their children. Men believe they own women and can kill them whenever they please. The Bible said everyone would die, but the death of Aviwe is not the way the Bible had envisioned death. Now we must ask ourselves if the problem lies within our families or is it with the government?”

The pastor launched into a fiery soliloquy, while pacing between the coffin and the mourners, wiping his face with the back of his hand. He talked about the heinous murder of Aviwe, a devout church member. He added, between citing Bible verses and relaying the horror of Aviwe’s untimely death, that there are few words that could console the family because this was no ordinary death.

Aviwe’s place of burial is 13km away from where she was murdered in her aunt’s house.

One of the last people to see her alive on the evening of August 31 was Nolungisile Mondileki, the elderly woman who lives in a rondavel on the same homestead. The 96-year-old talked to the Mail & Guardian while sitting on a grass mat in her neat rondavel. She said that this is her home, and she refuses to leave after the murder — she is also not afraid.

“This girl was brought here by my daughter-in-law to cook for the builders who have been working here for the past few months. The Friday night she died, she had come back from school a bit later than usual. The sun was starting to set if I remember correctly — the sheep were definitely back by that time,” she said.

“She came to greet me here. I asked her to not forget to close and lock the garage door of the main house. The builders had left it open when they left that morning. Since the sun was setting, I came inside my rondavel and locked up. I got ready for bed and that was the last time I saw her,” said Mondileki.

By the next morning, the sheep had already departed and she asked Oko Hleziphondo, a 19-year-old shepherd, to check why Aviwe had not come out of the house.

Hleziphondo told the M&G that he would never forget what he witnessed on the morning of September 1. “It is unlike her to wake up so late in the day, so umakhulu asked me to go and check. The front door of the house was unlocked but when I reached her bedroom, it was locked. There was no key in the hole. Until today we have not found the key. I peered through the keyhole and saw a body on the bed.”

It took Hleziphondo about two hours to call his neighbour, break open the window and then the door. He found Aviwe in bed, covered with a blanket. When he uncovered her body she was naked and her arm was rested on her forehead, lifeless and wounded.

Aviwe was dead.

According to the family, the police believe she was raped. The case has no leads.

Mondileki said: “We are all deeply hurt by what has happened. I am even more devastated by this thing because I was the one who was in the yard with her that night. But she sleeps in that house and I am all the way here. I didn’t hear a thing that night.”

She said that it took her three days to walk into the room where Aviwe was murdered. She found a two-burner stove with a pot of rice still on it, an enamel plate and cup on the floor, littered with clothes.

Dust to dust: Pastor Gilindoda Mqeke sets his Bible aside to lament the state of our country. (Paul Botes)

When asked who cleaned the blood off the blue mattress and bleached the duvet Aviwe was found dead on, she gazes out of the door towards the kraal. “I can’t tell you. But there are people who want to move on because everything here moves on,” she said slowly.

On the day of Aviwe’s funeral, the duvet, bleached in a galvanised bath, was hanging out to dry on the fence. It was spotless and it was the only thing hanging on the fence at seven in the morning.

At the ceremony, the memory of Aviwe lived on in the anger of the women in the village who repeatedly asked during the service why men would not protect them — and why the government had forsaken them.

Teacher, Noloyiso Gwebu, from Jongilanga Secondary School, where Aviwe was doing matric, cried. She said they are at a loss as a school. The day before, the matriculants had written their last English exam paper.

“Aviwe is the third child from our school to be killed. Brutally. The other two were boys. All three of them were respectful and well-behaved children who never had issues. This kind of violence is eating away at our fibre as a community and we get no kind of help from anyone. Just the other day, a child from our school was nearly abducted while walking to school. She was saved by a passerby who lives close to the school. The man who was trying to abduct her ran away with her phone. He had bitten her arm.”

Aviwe’s body was finally laid to rest. (Paul Botes/M&G)

Gwebu added that: “There are no suspects to any of these crimes. It just happens and we, and the students we teach, are just meant to carry on. We don’t have the answers and we have been begging for help.”

She stands with a dozen of Aviwe’s schoolmates, wearing their black and white uniforms and singing: “Bambulele uAviwe, eyothatha ibatshela,” (They killed Aviwe as she was attempting to get a bachelor [degree matric pass].)

Gwebu implored the village residents to better support the school and to protect the students, many of whom rent houses far away from their own homes in order to be closer to school.

“This is a very scary world we live in and though I do not have the answers, we must do better to protect ourselves in our communities.”

Staring at the coffin, with one hand caressing the laminated wood, Gwebu said: “Aviwe, you and the boys, wherever you all are must guide us to finding the perpetrators of these crimes because no one else seems to want to.”

The walk to Aviwe’s final resting place takes 15 minutes, crossing a dry river bed. Across the horizon, dots of colours, from the rondavels of the village, paint a startling contrast to the flat rocks hand-carved for headstones.

An elderly woman, breathing heavily in her battle to keep up with the students galloping and singing in unison behind the Toyota bakkie carrying the coffin, said there is no dignity in living here and none is afforded in death.

“This is the life we live, where big, fancy people only visit us when elections come around. That is the only time we are good for anything to them. Nene’s [Uyinene Mrwetyana] death was all over the radio and TV but no one knows about what happened to Aviwe. Can you tell me why not a single government representative is here to listen to our cries, to listen to this family as it mourns?”

She spoke of how difficult the family has found it to bury Aviwe with no money and only the help from villagers.

“She was too young to have a funeral policy to give her a dignified funeral. But the people from the community where she stayed and went to school and her maternal village have come out in their numbers. We only have each other.”

Her burial was simple, with none of the formalities that money can afford. Aviwe’s coffin was lowered into the red soil by churchmen dressed in grey and white.

The men placed large rocks on top of the coffin. Usually, said one of the village men, brick and mortar is laid at the bottom of the grave to ensure the coffin does not sink when the soil settles. Aviwe’s coffin was not braced with this foundation. The rocks on top would have to hold the heavy soil and stop it from collapsing into the coffin.

People in the Eastern Cape feel they have been forgotten. (Paul Botes/M&G)

“As black people, we believe in respecting the bodies of the dead and building a grave is one of the last things we can do for them. This could not be afforded to Aviwe. There might never be a headstone either because of how we had to make do with this,” he said.

In the unfenced gravesite, there are only a handful of headstones. The small rock slabs have been battered by the weather. No names can be read and the mounds in the earth are the only way to see that someone has been buried there.

Walking back to the tent in the heat, George Mayekiso took off his jacket and rubbed his beard. “Here we have been forgotten. It’s like we are not part of the rest of this country,” he laughed bitterly.

“The level of crime in this part of the country is unheard of and communities no longer know what to do. If, for instance, I take the law into my own hands the justice system will be more favourable to the perpetrator. If someone carrying a gun trespasses into my yard to steal my cattle and I shoot them, I would get a heftier sentence than them.”

Mayekiso said that he agrees with the pastor who spoke that morning, about fixing the home life first, but added: “The problem is with the government and how criminals are handled with kid gloves. The sentences are not harsh enough and these people live lavish lives in jail while families remain broken.”

“How is this the country we fought for and that people died for; this freedom when none of us are free and some of us have been forgotten?”

As the sun set, the temperature dropped and women tended to cast iron pots on a smouldering fire.

The mourners, when fed, headed back to their homes and talked about their daily lives, planning on who they would see the next day and who was being buried next week.

Talk about Aviwe had evaporated into the thin, dry air.

The fear lived by women every day

Women all over the country live in constant fear of being raped or murdered, simply because of their gender.

There were close to 150 cases of a sexual nature — these include cases of rape, sexual assault and attempted sexual offence — opened every day last year.

In the same year, 53 cases of domestic violence leading to assault and grievous bodily harm (GBH) were reported. Most of the cases, including those of murder, were committed in the women’s homes, and places they would feel most safe.

Even though there is quite a high number of cases reported, only a small percentage of perpetrators are found or are prosecuted. In many instances, cases are closed without an investigation or even informing the victim of progress.

This leads to mistrust in the system and fewer cases go reported. In Aviwe Wellem’s case, the family had not been given a case number until Mail & Guardian requested it five days after the incident. In Thohoyandou, a rape victim’s case was closed after she had described the culprit — a well-known man about town. The case was only reopened when her father found the perpetrator.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s rhetoric of how deeply traumatised the country is by acts of extreme violence perpetrated by men against women and children is not observed on the ground.

Addressing the country earlier this month, he said: “These acts of violence have made us doubt the very foundation of our democratic society, our commitment to human rights and human dignity, to equality, to peace, and to justice. The nation is mourning the deaths of several women and girls who were murdered by men.”

This is felt across the country, more so by women who live in constant fear of men and the justice system that fails to protect them.

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Athandiwe Saba
Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba is a multi award-winning journalist who is passionate about data, human interest issues, governance and everything that isn’t on social media. She is an author, an avid reader and trying to find the answer to the perfect balance between investigative journalism, online audiences and the decline in newspaper sales. It’s a rough world and a rewarding profession.

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