It was a moderately chilly late winter’s morning in Johannesburg on Wednesday August 5. Not unpleasant, but just not the kind of day one would choose to stand in a long queue outside a court building.
Bar the Covid-19 enforced precautions, everything else ws still the same at the Johannesburg magistrate’s court. The wheels of justice ground on at an ever-sedate pace. Inside court 9, where Mpho Thobane is standing trial for the murder of his girlfriend Viwe Dalingozi in November 2018, not much had changed since his last appearance in March, and the case was postponed to September 22.
But it is perhaps necessary to step back and remind ourselves what is at stake with case number 41/2012/2018. On the night of October 25 2018, residents of Fashion Lofts in downtown Johannesburg, were awakened by a raging fire on the 9th floor of the building. The fire had started at apartment 910, where 31-year-old Dalingozi lived. It obliterated her flat and damaged 911, where her neighbour, Maletsatsi Ngoashe, was jolted awake by loud popping sounds and the unbearable heat of the fire next door. She and her child managed to escaped the flames, but Dalingozi did not. She died in hospital two days later, having sustained severe burns to 66% of her body.
“I saw Viwe running,” Ngoashe told the court during her testimony in November. “She was on fire, and she was screaming “nditshisiwe nguMpho” (Mpho has set me alight). I saw a huge flame coming from her flat and I followed her as she was running towards the stairs but could not catch up.”
“Her hair was falling off and she had blood on her chest, she was trying to take off her T-shirt, it was burnt, she was trying to remove it from her body but couldn’t,” she said.
Remarkably, Dalingozi would make it down three flights of stairs, until Nandi, who lived on the building’s sixth floor, opened her door on hearing the commotion. It was she who called for help.
She also handed her phone over to Dalingozi to make a last desperate call to her uncle, Fezile Dalingozi: “Malume, nditshisiwe. Ndiyoyika. Ndizakufa.” [Uncle, I have been set alight. I’m scared. I’m going to die].
The cellphone played a central role in the unfolding of the events of October 25, 2018. Ngoashe told the court that earlier that day, Thobane — who lived next door with Dalingozi — knocked frantically at her door and asked to borrow some airtime to make an “urgent” phone call. When she told him she had none, he left, and she didn’t see him again that night.
But she did hear him. She was woken by loud voices coming from Dalingozi’s flat, separated from hers by a thin drywall.
The state alleges that there was a screaming match between the couple, and it would end with Thobane setting his sleeping girlfriend on fire and fleeing the scene.
One of the state’s first witnesses, a security guard who was stationed downstairs in the building, testified that he had seen the accused leaving Fashion Lofts. The security guard again saw Thobane exit the building when the fire was noticed.
The state alleges that the first trip was to a nearby petrol station, where Thobane bought the fuel he doused over this sleeping girlfriend. But the state dropped arson charges against Thobane, because there was no physical evidence gathered, nor any witnesses to attest to his alleged garage trip. The official report on the cause of the fire simply reads: “Undetermined.”
This was just one of a litany of oversights and mistakes made in the initial investigation.
When the matter was heard in March, the state asked for a postponement to allow it to corral its last two witnesses and find suitable dates for them to testify. One is Nandi, the person on the sixth floor, possibly the last person to have any interaction with Dalingozi after she had suffered the severe burns that would later kill her, and before she was rushed to Charlotte Maxeke hospital, where she later died. The second is Dalingozi’s attending doctor.
It is expected the state will conclude its case after they have taken the witness box.
How much longer the matter of the death of Viwe Dalingozi will grind its way on in the Johannesburg magistrate’s court will depend on whether Thobane will mount a defence.