‘As men, we seem to have declared outright war against the women of South Africa,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa this week, speaking to media outside the home of Precious Ramabulana. Precious was a 21-year-old student at Capricorn TVET College in Limpopo. On the night of November 24, she was asleep in her dorm room when a man broke in and attacked her. He raped her, stabbed her 52 times and took her cellphone and, for some reason, the now bloodied and torn garments she wore during the attack, which the police would later find in his possession.
He killed her as the country marked the beginning of the annual ritual of 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence. Aubrey Manaka, a 28-year-old man, is facing charges of murder, rape and robbery and will appear at the Molemole magistrate’s court on January 20.
“It is a national shame that a young woman who had a promising future had her life cut short by a man who killed her so brutally and slaughtered her like an animal,” said Ramaphosa.
But the real “national shame” is that neither Manaka nor Ramabulana are outliers. The crime Manaka is accused of is brutal and spine-chillingly shocking, but it is hardly unique. Ramabulana’s death may be heart-breaking and outrageous, but it has become the all-too-common fate of too many South African women. This is us now, and perhaps it always was.
Ramaphosa was correct in one thing he said: there is a war against the bodies and lives of women in South Africa. It is waged in their homes, in the places in which they work, in the streets they walk. It finds and destroys them as they go about the most mundane, everyday chores. Its weapons are knives and other sharp objects; petrol and flames.
Uyinene Mrwetyana went to fetch a parcel at the post office and never returned. Her murderer, postal worker Luyanda Botha, doused her body in petrol and set it alight after raping her and bludgeoning her to death. Viwe Dalingozi went to sleep in her own flat and woke up engulfed in flames.
Only days after Ramabulana met her macabre end, Gomolemo Legae, an 18-year-old schoolgirl, was accosted by a man as she walked home. Witnesses say they heard her screams, only to find her clinging on to life: she had multiple stab wounds and severe burns. Her attacker, like Dalingozi’s, had doused her in petrol and set her alight. Like Dalingozi, Legae just managed to tell people who found and helped her the identity of her attacker before she died of her third-degree burns.
Three female bodies; three young lives ended by beating, stabbing, setting on fire. This is us now, and perhaps it always was.
When Manaka turned up in court last week, his physical appearance prompted a minor social media debate on the ‘“look” of violent criminals. “Looking at this guy,” one journalist posted, “I was tempted to say he looks like the grievous crime he is accused of. Then I remembered Sandile Mantsoe, Karabo Mokoena’s murderer; Oscar Pistorius, Shrien Dewani, and had to concede that nobody looks like a killer and everybody looks like a killer.” To that you could add Mpho Thobane, the accused in Dalingozi’s murder.
The contrast could not be greater. Manaka confirms the average middle-class person’s notion of a violent criminal. He looks, as some commentators on the post noted, “insane”. Unwashed and unkempt, the deprivation and violence of life as a poor person in South Africa is written on his person. Violence he has no doubt committed, but violence he has also suffered. His clothes were scruffy and dirty, his face scarred, his countenance what might qualify as “scary”.
Not so Thobane, who was also in court not long ago. In fact, when Manaka is hauled out again in January to answer to his charges, he will do so only 24 hours after Thobane returns to court 9 of the Johannesburg magistrate’s court. Even in casual garb. Thobane is clean, well presented, and — as the events that unfolded at his last appearance demonstrated — articulate.
Despite the mind-numbing violence of the act he stands accused of, Thobane scares no one. You would not cross the street or nervously avoid eye contact if he walked towards you. He could be the guy from the IT department who smiles reassuringly and refuses to judge you when you do something daft like forget your own password, or a postgrad student hanging out in Braamfontein. Hang a slim-cut suit on him and he would not look out of place in Gwen Lane, Sandton. This man, accused of dousing his lover in petrol and setting her on fire, does not look like a killer. Because no one does, and everyone does.
Last week Thobane’s trial was postponed to January 19, after the state won a “trial within a trial” application to introduce “hearsay evidence”, essentially the testimonies of the last people Dalingozi spoke to before she succumbed to her burn wounds, all of whom she apparently told that
her boyfriend had set her alight as she slept on the night of October 25 2018.
And through these witnesses Dalingozi, forever silenced on that night in October, will finally be allowed to speak. The court’s decision to allow this led to a few minutes of drama in magistrate Thandi Twele’s courtroom. Thobane’s publicly appointed attorney had vigorously opposed the state’s request — brought in terms of section 3 of the Law of Evidence Amendment Act — and argued that his client would be prejudiced by the introduction of such witnesses.
Dalingozi’s version of events could not be tested, he said, because Dalingozi herself could not be cross-examined, nor her credibility established. Twele dismissed this and found that no prejudice would result to the accused because the “hearsay” would in any case not just be accepted as is but be weighed by the court against other evidence.
At this point the man who had stood silently and looked down at his own feet in the accused box throughout this trial, seemed to visibly lose his cool. He called his lawyer over and apparently attempted to fire him on the spot. He then demanded to speak for himself for the first time, during which he accused the prosecution and the court of being “biased” against him.
There was no possibility of the court finding in his favour, so he saw no point in having a lawyer. But the high-risk gamble was soon abandoned after some to-ing and fro-ing between the accused and the magistrate, who advised that there was little chance for Thobane to get a better trial without legal representation than with a lawyer.
“And in any case, none of your complaints have anything to do with your lawyer but are complaints against the prosecutor. Firing your own lawyer does not cure the prosecutor’s perceived bias in any way.”
So Thobane will return to Johannesburg magistrate’s court in mid-January, still with a court-appointed lawyer representing him. And on that day, the woman whose voice was silenced forever on the night of October 25 last year will be allowed — at least indirectly — to address the court.