This Youth Day, Missing Ink has shared an excerpt from 21 at 21: The Coming of Age of a Nation by Melanie Verwoerd and Sonwabiso Ngcowa.
It has been 21 years since the dawn of democracy in South Africa. To mark the “coming of age” of the nation, Verwoerd and Ngcowa travelled across South Africa collecting the life stories of people born in 1994. These “born frees” relate their personal journeys, dreams and hopes for the future of the country. The brutally honest voices of these 21-year-olds, challenging and disturbing, as well as funny and hopeful, give an invaluable insight into modern day South Africa.
Read the introduction, and scroll down to read the personal story of Wandisa, who has already spent almost two years in Pollsmoor Prison for killing a woman when she was just 16.
The book will be launched at Love Books on 17 June, with Justice Malala.
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By Melanie Verwoerd and Sonwabiso Ngcowa
On 26 April 1994, the eyes of the world turned to South Africa.
After decades of oppression and immense suffering, things were about to change. For three days, queues of people wanting to vote snaked for miles around electoral stations. For the first time, millions of South Africans finally experienced the joy of being able to vote. As Archbishop Tutu said, “To describe the joy of being able to vote for the first time is like being asked to describe the colour red when born blind.” With Nelson Mandela as our newly elected president, an era of optimism, hope and joy followed.
As the rainbow nation, we truly celebrated our new freedom. With our reputation restored in the eyes of the world and with international sport and culture opening up for us once again, we sensed a new beginning. Most importantly, we hoped for a better life in the future, particularly for the new generation born after 1994 or the ‘born frees’ as they have become known. As Mandela put it at Youth Day celebrations on 16 June 1995, “This generation stands at the borderline between the past of oppression and repression and the future of prosperity, peace and harmony.”
As we write, we are aware that the term ‘born free’ is highly contested. Many young people refuse to be labelled in this way, not least because of the level of poverty they still experience. As one ‘born free’ put it to us, “How can we be called born free when we live like this?”
Twenty-one years later, our democracy and those born in 1994 are “coming of age”. Although being twenty-one does not have any legal significance any more, it does still symbolise an important rite of passage. As with all transitions, it is a time of reflection, on the past, present and future. This is certainly true for the individual who celebrates their twenty-first birthday. On a political and social level, it is also a time for reflection on where our country came from, where it is today, and what the future might hold.
These questions about our collective past, present and future were very much in the forefront of Melanie’s mind when she came up with the idea for this book. After meeting Sonwabiso, the journey that gave birth to this book started. Throughout, we have been conscious that our collaboration is in itself a reflection of the change that South Africa has seen over the last twenty-one years. Melanie grew up in the leafy suburbs of Stellenbosch and lived the privileged life of a white person during the apartheid years. Sonwabiso comes from Mpozisa, a small village in the Eastern Cape. Although we were born more than a decade apart and have very different backgrounds we are both committed to the social transformation of South Africa.
Driven by curiosity about the state of our democracy as well as the aspirations of young people in South Africa, we knew that the stories of those born at the same time as South Africa’s democracy (in a sense, after Salman Rushdie, our Midnight’s Children) will give us some insight into the questions we (and others) are asking about the state of our democracy. And so we sought out twentyone-year-olds. They generously told us their life stories and bravely exposed their fears and personal pain. We also asked them the questions that intrigued us.
We wanted to know how life was different for those born post-1994, who did not grow up under official apartheid. On a personal level, we wondered whether their dreams and expectations differed from when we were their age. On a political and public level, we were intrigued about their opinions and aspirations. It was always important to us to allow these young individuals to define themselves, instead of us trying to define them. So we have endeavoured not to impose ourselves or our judgements on their stories.
Although we assumed that we knew much about our country and its youth, we also agreed early on to open ourselves to unfamiliar worlds. This proved invaluable. Neither of us anticipated how deeply we would be touched by the young people we met. In almost every interview, there was a moment, a phrase or an anecdote that will stay with us forever – the young boy whose mother sent him a yellow plastic chair every year from Cape Town, so he could have a chair to sit on in school in the Eastern Cape; the young lesbian who told us of her attempt to commit suicide just days before the interview; the woman convicted of murder who starts to cry when we ask of a time when she was happy; and the sex worker who shows us the scars on her face from all the beatings she receives.
The selection of stories was not based on any reduction of the complex demographics of South Africa, but it does attempt to be representative of race, gender and sexual orientation. It was also important for us to include the voice of someone who had come to South Africa as an immigrant from Africa.
During the selection process, we were mindful of the danger of falling into stereotypes and did not want to write a book that plays into preconceived ideas that people hold of young people in our country. So we sought out stories that were in some way different to what is generally known.
This book is not a survey. It is a compilation of deeply personal narratives that give some insight into the experiences, hopes and aspirations of many young people in this country and the trials they have to contend with in forging their lives.
The stories reflect the complexity of our society and its diversity.
There is Jenna, a successful young woman who has lived a fairly privileged existence. She was deputy head girl and very active. But, at the age of sixteen, she suddenly became short of breath and increasingly unwell. Eighteen months with various doctors and misdiagnoses followed. Eventually, she was diagnosed as having an advanced stage of pulmonary hypertension, a terminal disease. She deteriorated rapidly and when we interviewed her, she needed an urgent double lung transplant. Kept alive by machines, she still founded a charity – ‘Get me to 21’ – with remarkable results.
There is Yonela, a rapper and artist. She is also gay. As a child, she was academically very successful and won a national rap competition. She was even invited to perform at parliament. But, then, her older sister disappeared. After a year of searching, they received devastating news. Yonela today lives in fear of her own life because of her sexual orientation. Yet she is a fearless activist who uses her music and art to deal with her fear and anger.
Marcellino lives in Heideveld on the Cape Flats, known for its gangsterism and drug abuse. He moved schools seven times in his life and had no positive male role model, yet he was and remains determined to be a success. He teaches music to underprivileged children. He speaks movingly about raising his siblings from the age of seven – picking the little ones up from crèche, cooking dinner for them, bathing them and then putting them to bed, before doing his own homework and waiting for his mother to come home from work at 8pm.
Wandisa has already spent almost two years in Pollsmoor prison for killing a woman when she was sixteen. Although she grew up in very religious circumstances, her story is one of parental neglect. She talks honestly about what led up to the event, the unfortunate night of the killing, her time in prison and meeting her victim’s family. Wandisa is slowly putting her life back together and dreaming of a future working with children.
Joost grew up in the all-white Afrikaans enclave of Orania. Now studying at North-West University, he gives a fascinating insight into life in this secluded community with their own public holidays and even their own currency. He talks frankly about the philosophy underpinning Orania, how he adjusted to the multicultural environment of the university, and the reactions he gets from fellow-students when they hear that he is from Orania.
Ishmael is a devout Muslim who grew up in Australia after his father and his family emigrated to Australia because of their anti-apartheid beliefs. Practising their faith became increasingly difficult in Australia. Eventually Ishmael’s parents decided to return to South Africa in 2013. Ishmael talks passionately about his faith, about his ambition to play professional cricket and his challenge to fit in and find a sense of belonging.
Eliezer was born four months before the beginning of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. His parents fled the bloodshed with their eight children and eventually made it to Mozambique from where they crossed the border into South Africa. They found shelter with a Dutch Reformed Church minister in Johannesburg. As a qualified accountant, his mother found work at a local supermarket and his father founded a church, whilst finishing his doctorate in theology. Then tragedy struck. Eliezer’s older brother was murdered in a late night attack. A few months later, his father died from cancer. Despite these hardships, Eliezer is now studying mechanical engineering at Wits and has big dreams for his future in South Africa.
Kgothatso and Kgotso are twin brothers from Diepsloot, Soweto. They happily grew up with their great-grandmother and grandmother. One day they met Rosemary Nalden from Buskaid, who encouraged them to join her music school. This would change their life. Today, they both play string instruments in the Buskaid String Orchestra. They have played the world, including the Royal Albert Hall in London. They are now both finishing degrees and have big dreams.
Zelda, an attractive, well-spoken young woman we met in a park in Goodwood, is a cross-gender sex worker. She told us about her battle with her sexuality, and how she went from a private school to living in a plastic structure under a bridge. Her life is constantly in danger. Yet all she wants in life is to have a sex change, get married, adopt children and be a housewife.
Aviwe first lost his mother through death. Then, two years later, his father, whom he remembers showing him no love, also died. He tells how tough it was growing up on the streets of Port Elizabeth. The streets have no ubuntu. He failed grade ten and dropped out of school when he had to look after his very sick grandmother. He has a deep-seated anger. One day, he took the decision to take his own life.
Andisiwe is a passionate ballet and contemporary dancer. An opportunity to go to London three years ago was taken away from her by what looks like a case of corruption at the Department of Home Affairs. She could not get a passport. Her identity appears to have been stolen. She lives with her unemployed mother and her sister who works at a restaurant. She failed matric, but has plans to go back to school.
Phumelelo was introduced to the adult world very early in life. At thirteen, he already started having sex. He is a hard-working
individual who supports his three-year-old daughter. He lives in Soweto with his mother. His father died when he was in grade eight. But he found love in music. He now plays in a string orchestra. He has been to a number of countries.
Tswarelo’s father was part of the African National Congress’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. His father was in exile and received his military training in Russia. Tswarelo’s mother was a primary school teacher. She died on the day Tswarelo went to school for the first time in grade one. Left with his grandmother and older brother, he remains grateful for the values he was taught by his grandmother. He is enrolled at university to study law.
Siviwe lives with his mother, younger brother and older sister. Even after making his girlfriend pregnant while in grade twelve, Siviwe is still determined to reach his dream of becoming a sports scientist. When it comes to schools, he has experienced the worst of the worst and the best of the best. He started crèche at a village school in the Eastern Cape and went on to one of the better schools in Cape Town – Rosebank College.
Nosiphe and Nosimphiwe are twins from a family of eleven. Their mother died three years ago; the year before that their older brother died after he was attacked in a shebeen. The twins both fell pregnant and had babies while still in high school. They did not finish their education. Both say their future dreams are not cancelled by becoming mothers, but are merely postponed.
Ziyanda dreams of being a secretary. She grew up in the township of Masiphumelele, south of Cape Town. After grade seven at a public primary school in Ocean View, one of her teachers suggested that she go to a school for children with special needs, since she has a birth defect – her one leg shorter than the other. She is now at home and unemployed.
Jaime is a student at the University of Stellenbosch. She has two mothers and a good relationship with her father. She speaks about how she is aware that she got a better start in life than many black children in South Africa, especially those in townships.
Noluvo’s parents were living in Khayelitsha when she was born. She remembers walking her father to the taxi stop when she was six years old. He had told the family that he found work in Johannesburg. He never returned. She moved in with her mother’s employer in St James when she was still very young. Throughout her school life, she has been in English medium schools and has to contend with being called a coconut in Khayelitsha. Noluvo is studying to be a chef. She has a one-year-old daughter whom she adores.
Siphosethu is a young businesswoman. After completing her fashion design diploma she went on to start her own business. She runs her clothing design business from home. Her hopes and dreams are to have her own clothing boutique and a hair salon.
Although these stories are clearly very different, some themes became apparent during the months of interviewing.
A thread that ran through almost all the stories was the severe disruption of family life and specifically (with a couple of notable exceptions) either the complete absence or the destructive presence of father figures in the children’s lives. Only five out of all the young people we interviewed had a stable family life. Although it is true that most of the children’s parents were either divorced or separated, this was not what concerned us most. Undoubtedly, divorce is hardest felt by young people. However, what was related to us, time and time again, was far more troubling than the splitting up of parents. We were frequently met with amazed looks when we asked if there was or had been domestic violence in the family home. The answer was too often – of course! We were almost matter-of-factly told how their mothers were beaten and sexually abused. The pain and even hatred of many of these young people towards their fathers can perhaps best be summed up by the response of one young man; when asked if his life would have been different had he known his dad, he responded, “Yes, for sure. It would have been even worse.”
The second theme relates to the struggle for education. These twenty-one-year-olds are living in a world of unprecedented access to information, yet many are cut off from it. The schooling that has been provided, particularly for black learners, has not been one that ensures a route to post-school education and training. According to the South African government, 2.8 million young people between the ages of 18 and 24 are not in education, employment or training.
Eight of the twenty-one-year-olds in this book dropped out of school before the end of grade twelve. The reasons differ but for a number of them it was because of poverty and a lack of support at school and home. Three have their matric, but did not go any further. All of them expressed a deep desire to further their education, but found it impossible.
Another theme that emerged relates to identity. The late teens and early twenties is a time when young people naturally seek to find a sense of self and belonging in the world. We found these young men and women born in 1994 to be conscious of themselves and their position in the world. When asked, ‘Who are you?’, all of them answered with little hesitation. Their answers were complex. They showed a layering of identity from a deep engagement with many aspects of growing up in as diverse a society as South Africa.
We would often forget that the young people we were speaking to were born in 1994 and were only twenty-one years of age. They displayed a level of maturity far beyond their years.
Interestingly, almost all the people we interviewed had little appetite for politics. With a few exceptions, all had voted in the last election, but they had no interest in political issues, political parties or the leadership of the country. Many expressed negative opinions about the current leadership, but were vague and often factually inaccurate when asked about the reasoning behind their opinions. We found this to be a big difference from our experiences as young people growing up in the pre-1994 period. In our opinion, youth, particularly in the townships, were far more engaged and skilled in political debate back then.
This lack of political engagement did not however translate into a materialistic approach to life as we might have expected. Although there was the perfectly normal desire to have financial security and a home of some kind, having a family and being able to provide for their families were almost always mentioned as the number one aim in their lives. Happiness was never defined in terms of possessions or status symbols only. When asked about the future, caring for their families and finding fulfilment in a job or career were at the forefront of their minds. Yet, it was quite striking how vague many were about how they intended to pursue their hopes and dreams for the future. Since we are not psychologists or sociologists, we do not wish to speculate on a possible explanation for this. Yet the lack of a vision for the future from many of our interviewees was striking and somewhat concerning.
When we started this project, we had sincerely hoped that life had become easier for those who were born at the dawn of our democracy. However, for many of the youths we spoke to, this has not been the case.
And yet, despite the pain and many challenges that most of these young people have faced and continue to endure, they still have faith that their lives will be better in the future. Their strength, resilience and determination had us in awe and gave us a sense of hope for the next twenty-one years of our democracy.
We would like to sincerely thank all the young people who agreed to be interviewed. We know how difficult it was for many of them to expose their pain and fears to us and we can only hope that we have done justice to their stories. We also want to thank all the people who made this book possible. A very special thanks to Paula Assubuji and the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their generous financial support. Without it, this book would not have been possible.
Finally, our hope is that this book will in some small way break down stereotypes and preconceived ideas about young people in South Africa and that it will contribute to the building of our nation as we enter the next twenty-one years.
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Happiness does not walk with me
The woman who opens the door definitely does not look like the rugby player I was told I’m meeting. Yes, she is strongly built, but it is hard to imagine her beautifully made-up face and carefully manicured nails in a scrum. Wandisa politely, almost shyly, invites us into the sitting room of a house run by an NGO for young female offenders.
As we sit down, I find it even harder to imagine that this soft-spoken young woman has already spent eighteen months in Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison for killing someone. And yet, from the first words she utters about herself, the inevitability of some serious crisis developing in her life becomes apparent.
“We were 18 children in our house in Khayelitsha,” she says. “No one ever knew or cared what I was doing.”
“Your mum did not care?” I have to bend forward to hear her answer.
She whispers, “My mum left me and my brother when we were three years old. I was one of a twin, but then, when my twin brother was four years old, someone else, who wanted a boy, took him.”
Born in Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape, Wandisa’s dad passed away when she was eight months old. According to the stories she was later told, her mum ‘gradually disappeared’ after her dad’s death, not being able to cope with the demands of her six children. When Wandisa and her twin brother were age three, she took them to Cape Town and left them with her brother and his wife.
“I never saw my mum again,” Wandisa says quietly.
Her uncle and aunt were missionaries for the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) and the house was always packed with people who came to stay.
“If you were from the Eastern Cape, you were welcome to stay there. You didn’t pay rent; you didn’t pay electricity. You just stayed there, ate, did whatever.”
But it was a tiny house with only three bedrooms for eighteen children and the many adults. Still, her early childhood was fairly stable and she grew up believing that her aunt and uncle were her biological parents. But things changed during grade seven.
“I could see my surname was different from my family in Khayelitsha. I was always asking them, ‘Why is my surname not like yours?’ They always said, ‘No, just ignore that.’”
As Wandisa grew older, she became more and more concerned about the issue. Eventually, she spoke to a teacher at school. “I didn’t ask as if it was about me. I asked as if it was on behalf of a friend. The teacher said, ‘No, that means there is something behind this story’.” Not having the courage to confront them directly, Wandisa wrote her family a letter. They reacted furiously.
“They said, ‘No, you don’t want us anymore. You are now old enough – so now you live your life.’ But I was still so young. I was only twelve years old!”
Wandisa stops, and not for the first time I sense that she wants to cry, but she bites her lip and continues. “It was so, so difficult for me, and that is when I became naughty. At home, I was like the good girl, washing the dishes, cleaning the house. But no one knew, while they were sleeping, where Wandi was.”
With so many children in the house, the adults did not seem to notice when one was missing. Wandisa would climb out of the window at night, and then she was, as she puts it, ‘away’.
A year after finding out who her real parents were, at the age of thirteen, she met a young man, who was six years older than her and in grade twelve. Even though she knew he was ‘really old’, they became romantically involved. Wandisa says she felt loved for the first time.
“He told me everything that I wanted to know. I never heard from my biological parents or from my family – ‘I love you, Wandi’. But he told me that he loves me, that I am special. All of those words that I really wanted to hear. And so I started falling in love with him.”
They both played rugby and her boyfriend would support her at matches. None of her family ever pitched up to see her play. The relationship developed quickly and she started to go to his place at night, something she knew would never be acceptable to her family. She became even more secretive.
“In our house, a Christian house, I was not supposed to have a man. I was not supposed to talk with the guys, even to have a man as a friend. And now, when my uncle and aunt were sleeping, my boyfriend was standing outside our window. And I went with him. I thought I was happy.”
Wandisa’s sense of happiness was short-lived; her life would take a terrible turn.
One night at her boyfriend’s house, a twenty-nine-year-old woman confronted her. It turned out that her boyfriend was also dating this woman. Wandisa had been suspicious after reading messages and seeing photos on his phone. Yet when she had confronted him, he denied it and said it was from his cousin’s sister. Despite her friends also telling her “he is dating that chick”, she believed him. However, at around two o’clock in the morning, the argument between the two women turned violent. The older woman suddenly grabbed a knife that was lying on the kitchen table and stabbed Wandisa in the hand.
“I just saw the blood on my hand, you know,” Wandisa says while rubbing her thumb over the angry scar. “I felt the pain and that’s when I grabbed a corkscrew on the table and I stabbed her in the chest. I really did not mean to kill her.”
I ask whether she had been using drugs or had been drinking that night and she shakes her head firmly.
“Actually, I have never used drugs in my life. I did drink, but I don’t want to say it’s because I was drunk. I just had two ciders. I was not drunk. I remember everything that happened that day. I wasn’t drunk.”
Wandisa would not refer to the woman by name. She only calls her ‘my victim’. She says that her victim did not die immediately, but was rushed to the hospital by the boyfriend (who she also does not want to name) and his cousin’s sister. On the way to the hospital, they apparently made the fatal mistake of pulling the corkscrew out, which resulted in massive bleeding and her death.
Not knowing this, but fearful of what had happened and conscious that her family did not know that she was sneaking out at night, Wandisa called the police.
“I said, ‘I am Wandisa and I stabbed someone and I’m scared. I want to go home, can you please help me.’”
The police arrived and took her home to her surprised family. Wandisa went to bed, but shortly after was woken up by her aunt’s screams. Listening at the door of her bedroom, Wandisa realised something had gone seriously wrong. She overheard the police telling her aunt to instruct her to wear something warm as they were going to take her away and charge her with murder.
Wandisa starts to shake slightly as she relives the events of that night. She struggles to get her feelings and breathing under control. After a few minutes, she looks briefly up at me and then down at her hands again.
“Yoh! Yoh! Yoh! I was so traumatised. I could not believe that these hands could kill someone,” she says, turning her delicate hands around in her lap.
“How did your family react?”
“They were so angry,” she says. “They had to pay for the funeral of my victim and also then support me while I was in prison.”
Wandisa was charged and two years later found guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced to 48 months in jail. Whilst waiting for the court procedures to be completed, she bravely remained in Khayelitsha and continued to go to school.
“The police had to escort me every day, because those people – my victim’s friends and family – they wanted to kill me.”
I ask how her friends treated her and whether they were supportive.
She looks at me, her eyes sad. “I never had friends. My boyfriend was my best friend. Even now … I never had friends in my life. I have my cousins, and we’re like friends together. But my boyfriend was my best friend.”
Yet, like her mother years before, her ‘best friend’ disappeared when she needed him most. She never saw him again. Three years after the night of the stabbing, he tried to visit her in prison, but Wandisa refused the visit.
The court hearing was traumatic, despite having a social worker with her. It also placed a heavy financial burden on the family as they had to employ a lawyer. Wandisa’s older sister to this day pays R1,000 a month towards his costs.
I try to imagine what it must feel like to be found guilty and sentenced to prison time, when you are only eighteen years old.
Wandisa’s voice shakes as she tells me how, after being sentenced, she was taken down the stairs to the holding cells and then driven to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison. I see her face reflect the fear she felt when she was given a prison uniform and put into a communal cell. She tells me that she stayed there for only a few hours, since a fight almost immediately broke out with the ‘boss’ of the cell.
“She was also African and I had to show her I was not weak,” says Wandisa. “After that, they put me into a single cell for the rest of my time.”
I ask her what her time was like in prison. She is reluctant to talk about it. “I don’t like to think of those times.” She describes how they had to be ready to be counted at 6am and then after 40 minutes of exercise had breakfast at 7am. She defines the programme of the day in terms of meals, but grimaces at the memory of the food. “I don’t want to talk about that food,” she says and gags slightly.
Wandisa stayed determined to further her education and she completed grade twelve in jail.
“After breakfast, I would do my school work, every day. And then at five-thirty, they closed us back in and we were locked up.”
She shivers slightly as she recalls how scared and anxious she became, locked up on her own after having always shared a home with seventeen or more children. Eventually, she had to be given sedatives.
“The pills and needles helped a bit,” she says.
I ask her why she thinks it all happened this way? What went wrong?
“I was angry,” she says. “So angry. Not just that night. I was angry for something else. That night, with my victim, I took the anger to the wrong place.”
Then she tells me how as a child she would self-harm.
“If I take off my braids now, you will see the scars. I used to bang my head. I would scream from anger, because I did not have the words. Sometimes I would just hit myself. I was so angry because of my background.” She looks at me calmly, but in her eyes, there is a flicker of bitterness.
“You know, my parents … they were not there for me. I don’t blame my daddy. He died. But my mum … my mum …”
Yet, despite this, Wandisa, like most children, always hoped to see her mother again. She searched for her for many years, even writing to a radio show to try and find her. Eventually, she found out through a cousin on Facebook that her mum was back in Cofimvaba. She still wants to see her, but her parole conditions make it impossible for her to travel there at present.
I am trying to picture the meeting of a mother and daughter after eighteen years of separation. What would one say? What would she do?
“You know, I used to have so many questions – so many things I wanted to say to her. But now, now I want to be forgiving and I want to forget. I can’t always keep her here,” she says, pointing to her heart. “But I do want to just ask her, ‘How do you feel about me? Now that I am old – how do you feel?’”
I am speechless in the face of the deep need this young woman has to just for once hear the words “I love you” from the people that matter. It is not hard to understand the deep anger that runs through someone, especially someone so young, after so much abandonment and pain. Yet, Wandisa does not strike me as angry anymore. I wonder if it is just a pose. When I ask her, she explains that her time in jail has fundamentally changed her. Not only the courses she did and the psychological help she received, but also her engagement with her victim’s family. She tells me how she requested to be part of the restorative justice programme while in jail. This involved meeting her victim’s family and apologising to them.
“I wanted to know what they were feeling and I wanted to ask for forgiveness, even if they won’t [forgive me] … I wanted to talk with them and I wanted to share with them. I wanted to tell them that I’m sorry for what I did. You see, I never spoke in court. My lawyers did all the talking for me.”
The family, including the victim’s 15-year-old daughter, came to the prison. “They were there, sitting in a line at a long table. There were two cops and two prison wardens with the family.” Wandisa had her social worker and a psychologist to support her. “There was no one from my family. I was on my own. I had to talk for myself.”
I asked how it went, but it is clear that the victim’s family was very angry. They accused Wandisa of telling lies on the stand (something she denies) and also protecting the ex-boyfriend, whom she has not seen since that night.
I ask Wandisa how she feels now. Her head drops. She says with real pain in her voice, “I feel so sorry. So sorry for my victim. But also so sorry for her child. I robbed her of her mother. If I can get money, I would buy everything for her. But I can still not replace her mother, ever.” She takes a few seconds, then says, “You know, if I could go back to that night, I would change everything. Everything! If there was a Jik [a bleach] wand, I would rub out everything. That’s what I would do. Unfortunately, there is no such thing.”
Wandisa has made peace with the fact that she will never be able to change the events of that awful night. Yet, there is very little chance now of living the normal carefree life of most 21-year-olds. Having been released after 18 months in jail, she will be on parole until September 2016, with many conditions attached. She has to remain in a house for ex-offenders with a strict regimen of shared responsibilities. She cannot travel and has to see her parole officer weekly. She sometimes goes to see her family in Khayelitsha, but she remains “very, very scared” of what her victim’s family might do. Her parole officer has advised her not to go there, but that means just more loneliness for her.
Despite all of this, Wandisa seems determined to build a future for herself. She is studying early child care development with the aim of becoming a child psychologist. “I just really, really want to help children,” she says, “and I want to be a good mother. I will tell my children every day that I love them.”
She is wary of relationships and boyfriends. “I am not saying never, but not now!” she says firmly.
As our interview winds to a close, Sonwabiso, who has left most of the talking to Wandisa and me, leans forward. “Sisi,” he asks in his usual respectful and gentle tone, “can you remember a time when you were really happy?”
After having spent an hour bravely recalling her very difficult life story, this gentle almost matter-of-fact question seems to break something inside Wandisa. There is a sharp intake of her breath and her eyes grow wide. “Yoh!” she says, trying to force a smile, but then the dam wall breaks. Tears flow down her cheeks as she looks at Sonwabiso. All she is able to manage is a shake of her head. Then she gathers herself and she whispers, hoarsely, “No, bhuti. happiness does not walk with me.”
* Her surname has been omitted to protect her identity.
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