South Africa: Long Read | the Untold Story of Ngugu Wapad

analysis

The gruesome killing of a young Northern Cape mother in 2009 went largely unnoticed by the media. But those whom it touched still carry the burden of each awful detail with them.

In the early hours of Saturday 28 March 2009, Ngugu Wapad screamed among knee-high grass and gravestones in a cemetery in Galeshewe, Kimberley. The 24-year-old was only a five-minute walk from her aunty's house, but she couldn't run for it. Four young men held her down and a gravestone pinned down her arm.

"I know you," she said to brothers Archibald and Moleko Chweu, then 27 and 21, Thabiso Majama, 20, and Tshwaro Louw, 15, warning that she would expose them for raping her. She never got the chance.

What happened to Wapad - or Letty, as she was sometimes known - was a crime so exceptional in its cruelty that even the most seasoned criminal justice professionals were traumatised by the details. Its brutality was matched only by the highly publicised gang rape and disembowelment of Anene Booysen, who was murdered in 2013.

There was no national outrage for Wapad, just a determined investigative team that defied a notoriously sluggish criminal justice system.

Through court records, news reports and witness testimony, what happened on that frightful morning can be pieced together. The Friday night before her murder, Wapad had gone to a tavern a stone's throw from her aunt's house, where she was staying. She left at about 1am and the four accused led her to the ABC cemetery, a short walk from the tavern.

At about 7am, Captain Doggie Magugu was called to the scene. The tall, slender, bespectacled detective found what he would later describe as the most "gruesome" crime he had witnessed in his 24 years as a policeman, 18 of them as a detective. Wapad had been gang raped, stabbed 15 times, and her face bludgeoned so badly that she was unrecognisable. She was sliced open from chest to abdomen and her intestines were draped over a gravestone. Stab wounds on her hands showed how desperately the small woman, weighing about 53kg, had tried to fight off her attackers. She was still alive when they shoved a rock the size of a large fist into her vagina.

When it was all over, the killers went drinking at another tavern.

Tireless and quick

Magugu declined to be interviewed, but in 2010 he told the local Diamond Fields Advertiser newspaper that he had remained at the scene until 5.30pm to preserve and collect crucial evidence. He and his team worked flat out for 48 hours, going door to door to track down suspects.

One of the killers had left his hat at the scene. Magugu and his team were told that it belonged to Majama, who tried to flee when the police approached him. They found his blood-stained clothes and shoes at his home. Next, they tracked down the Chweu brothers. It's not clear how the police were able to identify them as suspects, but it is believed that intelligence from the community helped. The brothers were arrested and their blood-stained clothes confiscated. Next it was the turn of the youngest suspect, Louw.

Magugu and his team had all four suspects in custody by Sunday night. Much of the evidence had been carefully collected by then; Magugu knew the extent of the crime. Or so he thought. But then forensic pathologist Denise Lourens called him to let him know she had discovered the rock. Magugu wept. Suddenly the blood on Majama's shoes made sense.

During the autopsy, Lourens stepped away several times to compose herself, she later told the court. Of the 10 000 bodies she had dissected, this was the most brutal murder she had seen.

It was "one of the most revolting ways of putting a human being to death", is how then-acting judge Nozuko Mjali put it when sentencing the three older men to three life sentences and 10 years each in the high court in Kimberley. Louw, underage at the time, received a lesser sentence of 15 and eight years; the men's sentences all ran concurrently.

During the trial, it emerged that Majama had boasted about the crime at a tavern he had gone to afterwards. Two witnesses testified to this.

Experienced prosecutor advocate Tania Birch, now the deputy director of public prosecutions for the Northern Cape, and her team secured the convictions in just over a year. It was a feat for a National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) suffering immense resource constraints and a large case backlog. According to an analysis by the Institute for Security Studies, the NPA finalised just 35% of all its cases between 2006 and 2009, the year Wapad was murdered.

In its 2009 report to Parliament, the NPA's capacity problems were exposed. With a vacancy rate of about 17%, its prosecutors had a case backlog of over 40 000. (The needle hasn't moved much in 11 years: by 2020, the backlog was 34 000 cases, according to the NPA's most recent annual report.)

Teamwork

So why were Magugu and his team able to solve Ngugu's murder so quickly and with such accuracy, paving the way for Birch's successful prosecution of the accused?

Birch explains that the prosecutor and investigating officer must work closely together. This was easy because "Magugu is an excellent investigator", she says. The prosecutor must examine the case docket with precision, analysing every detail of the crime. In this case, Birch saw a photograph of the hat left at the crime scene and knew it was a "vital" picture.

But there was no way to link it to the crime yet. So Birch went back to the South African Police Service's records unit and requested every picture from the crime scene to see if she could place the hat near Wapad's body. She found the picture she needed and, with the intelligence Magugu had gathered, placed Majama at the scene.

Some of the accused ratted on the others and made confessions that were inadmissible because the men would not repeat them in court. But these confessions led the police to conclude who all their suspects were, says Birch, though she and Magugu had to link them to the crime in other ways. When Birch found out that Sophie Louw, the teenager's mother, had handed him over to the police, she knew that the woman was the key. She approached Sophie for a statement, and the mother agreed to testify against her son.

Forensic evidence linked the blood on one of the killers' clothes to Wapad, but the accused said they had had consensual sex and that the victim was menstruating at the time. The pathology report ruled this version out, and the killer crumbled on the stand under Birch's cross-examination. Prosecution, she says, is about "breaking down the accused's version [of events]". The case would never have been solved had the police not acted so quickly in securing the arrests, Birch adds.

Behind the mask

In court, Birch is steely-eyed and surgical in her cross-examinations. But when the court is not in session, she is not one to put on a brave face. She puts herself in each victim's shoes, imagining their pain as if it were her own. It is a brutal process, but it is her way of navigating the emotions of a trial. Birch may be tough, facing down the most evil rapists and killers, but she is also human, a woman and a mother.

"As a woman, it is very traumatic. Even the doctor [Lourens] broke down, and she's one of the best and most experienced in the country. Even for the judge - she was also a woman and even from her perspective... all of us, we felt it very deeply," she says.

"When you look at that stone... I had to stare at that stone every day. I had to make sure it came to court every day. You can imagine that emotion, touching that stone every day, knowing what they did to that woman."

During the trial, Birch's domestic worker was raped in the same cemetery as Wapad and told this was a warning to her employer.

The medical examiner's testimony is the most difficult part of any trial, says Birch, as it was with Lourens' testimony in this case.

"I literally just go home and weep, and then I feel better. That is how I deal with it. All those built-up emotions... I let go of it that way. We [prosecutors] cannot always speak about how we feel and what we go through, because we are not allowed to. So we sit with those emotions of what the victim went through."

Alcohol and violence

Alcohol abuse and unemployment run deep in Galeshewe. Statistics are difficult to come by, but the Northern Cape provincial government commissioned a study into foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) in 2014. It showed that in Galeshewe about 11% of grade 1 pupils suffered from the disorder - a result of alcohol abuse during pregnancy - which was 5% higher than the regional average.

Galeshewe is a township of about 100 000 people. While some parts of the township feature modern, middle-class houses, businesses and schools, in other parts, the RDP houses are crumbling, electricity is non-existent and shacks are the norm. Nearly 15% of the residents have no income while about 50% are dependent on grants. The township was founded in the early 1870s in the wake of the diamond rush that brought thousands of people to Kimberley. As diamond mining in the area took off, Galeshewe grew as a base for the migrant labour working on the mines.

Leana Olivier, chief executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research, says the province has the highest rate of FASD in the world. Though this is not an indicator of alcoholism per se, Olivier says, it indicates prenatal alcohol abuse. The participants in the research study said stress, community or peer pressure, hopelessness and dependence were among the reasons for their alcohol abuse.

Kimberley-based postgraduate sociology researcher and activist Bali Maeneche says alcohol abuse is undoubtedly a factor in gender-based violence, but it is not the only one. And it is quite difficult to reconcile the numbers: South Africa has the fifth-highest rate of gender-based violence in the world, and though its alcohol abuse figures are shocking, they are not "debilitating", Manaeche says.

"So how then do we take these separate statistics and say we believe they have some type of relationship? It's difficult to do that."

Manaeche says other social factors have to be taken into account, such as unemployment, the history of violence in the country and how men relate to it now.

Mothers sharing grief

Sanna Wapad is visiting Kimberley from Pampierstad. She has come to help her niece take care of her newborn. The baby's mother, Monica Wapad, is the only breadwinner in the family; everyone else depends on social grants.

Sanna is just 69 but looks 20 years older. Her eyes have glazed over with the greyish-blue beginnings of cataracts, and her hearing is fading. She hunches with the frailty of someone who has grown weary not from old age, but from a difficult life. The last time Sanna spoke to her daughter before her murder, she warned her about going out in Kimberley. When a neighbour knocked on Sanna's door and broke the devastating news, Sanna collapsed.

She later took a taxi to Kimberley and stayed with her niece, Aida van der Westhuisen, attending the court appearances of the four accused. On one occasion, Sanna collapsed on the steps outside court and was hospitalised. When it became clear that she was too traumatised to attend the proceedings, the police advised her not to come back.

Sanna carries the pain of losing her daughter with her always. "It hurts a lot," she says.

But something else happened during those early court appearances: Sophie Louw walked into the room where the Wapad family sat waiting for the court proceedings to get under way. "Please forgive me for what my child did to your child," Sophie said to the Wapad family. The families became friends, with Sophie supporting the Wapads throughout the trial.

Helping the police

Sophie is a deeply religious woman with a kind smile, but the domestic worker and mother of three has the voice of a disciplinarian. Sitting on a beer crate in her RDP house, she remembers the horror.

She felt it in her bones that something terrible was going to happen that night, she says, and begged her son to stay home. Louw didn't listen. When he didn't come home that night, Sophie sent his brother and some friends to find him. He arrived back at the house covered in blood. He said he had been stabbed, but his injuries and the position of the blood on his clothes did not add up. "That is not your blood," Sophie said to him.

She beat Louw with a sjambok until her other son begged her to stop. But still Louw wouldn't talk. He left the house, and on Sunday morning Magugu and a convoy of police vehicles pulled up outside the house. Louw had been placed at the tavern where Ngugu had been that Friday night by the tavern security guard.

Sophie took Magugu's number, promised to call when Louw returned home, and gave the police his bloodstained clothes. When Louw returned, Sophie phoned the detective.

"I said to Tshwaro, 'This is the last time you will see me,'" Sophie says. That would prove not to be true, and she would get a confession out of Louw during a prison visit months later.

"It [the crime] is the ugliest thing I have ever heard of in my life... I said to him, 'I did not send you there [to kill Wapad]. I sent you to school and I sent you to church. I sent you home to do your homework. But I did not send you there,'" she says.

Eleven years later Louw is out of jail, and Sophie is overcome with emotion when she talks about Wapad's death. She wants her son to apologise to Wapad's family, and says he intends to do so.

Blurry picture

It is difficult to get a complete picture of who Wapad was. Family members remember her jokes but struggle to recall details about the young woman other than her desire to escape poverty by finding work and to leave her abusive boyfriend. According to her family, a single photograph of Wapad exists: the required identity book image, which is kept in a small box with their personal belongings in Pampierstad.

She was a bright, funny, approachable woman, a mother of two small children who had left school in grade 8. At the time of her death, she attended night school, hoping to complete matric while surviving on child support grants.

Wapad had come to Kimberley to bury a murdered relative, but planned to stay to look for work and start her life over without her abusive partner. She had left her children in the care of their paternal grandmother and planned to fetch them to live with her in Kimberley once she found a job. Back in Pampierstad, she was depressed, but in Kimberley in the month before her death, her mood had brightened with the prospect of finding work.

Her two children, now aged 15 and 17, stayed in Pampierstad with their father until his death earlier this month. Now in the care of their paternal grandmother, the children were told that their mother had been murdered when they were younger, although they were spared the gruesome details of the crime. The eldest refuses to go to Kimberley, because when he does he hears upsetting rumours on the streets about how his mother died.

Wapad was hopeful in the last days of her life and glad to be away from Pampierstad, says her cousin, Mitha Wapad. "She felt that she had a chance to make her life better. She was much happier here [in Kimberley] than there. She was free from everyone and everything." Mitah adds that Wapad was a good mother who liked to help others. She was very funny and cheeky at times, but never nasty.

From her house, Van der Westhuizen can see the tavern where Wapad spent her last hours. Through her back door, she can see the tall pepper tree under which the young woman died.

From the conversations with everyone touched by Wapad's murder, it is clear that behind each case number are lasting scars. As Birch says: "I remember even the first rape case I did as a prosecutor. You never forget them. They're always here in the back of your mind. You wonder how they are, how they are doing. You live with it. It becomes part of you."

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