A ‘killer’ next door

2013-09-15 10:00

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It was a crime that horrified the nation: a four-year-old girl found dead, her tiny broken body hanging in a building close to her family’s Katlehong home. Zinhle Mapumulo visited the area to try to make sense of Keabetswe Tshabalala’s brutal end. Elizabeth Sejake took the pictures

Blantina Khulo was walking home from a shopping mall on Sunday afternoon when Keabetswe Tshabalala came running towards her.

The four-year-old was about 50m away from the home she shared with her mother, grandmother, uncles and cousins on Katlehong’s Letseka Street.

“She was running and seemed agitated,” Khulo says. “I stopped and asked where she was going, but she just said ‘there’ and continued running with a plastic bag draped over her shoulder.”

There was a man following the little girl. Khulo recognised him as 37-year-old Isaac Modise Motapane.

“He stopped, greeted me and went after her. And that was the last I saw of them. They were approaching a T-junction and I am not sure whether they went to the left or right.”

Nearly 24 hours later, Keabetswe’s half-naked body was found at a recycling plant. She had been raped and hanged by a shoelace.

Her brutal death happened in the same week that five-year-old Anelisa Mkhondo was found dead under a pile of rubble, apparently after someone used a plastic bag to suffocate her in Diepsloot township, northwest of Joburg.

While the nation bayed for blood and politicians across the spectrum condemned the young girls’ murders, Keneilwe Tshabalala was grieving.

The 25-year-old’s ordeal began about half an hour after Khulo had said she saw Keabetswe and Motapane.

She couldn’t find her daughter, who had been playing with other children across the road.

Keneilwe looked in her neighbours’ houses where Keabetswe liked to play, but couldn’t find her. She still wasn’t worried: Sometimes her daughter and other children went to buy chips and sweets at a spaza shop down the road. Perhaps she was there. Keneilwe went home to wait for her daughter.

Then the sun set.

By now, the Tshabalala family had a visitor: Motapane, whom she knew by his second name, Modise, had come to see one of Keabetswe’s uncles.

“Modise offered to help me look for Keabetswe. We went from house to house and she was nowhere to be found. We even searched the open fields close to my house and we couldn’t find her,” says the young mother.

The family called the police and the search resumed. Neighbours, including Khulo, joined in.

During the search, Khulo says, she had “forgotten that I had met Keabetswe running the same afternoon with Modise behind her”.

On Sunday evening, with Keabetswe still missing, Motapane spent the night in the family’s outside room with her uncle.

The following day, on Monday, Khulo was talking to Keneilwe’s mother, Matsietsi Motloung, after Keabetswe’s body was found.

“It only dawned on me when Keneilwe’s mother told us that Modise was with her daughter when they found Keabetswe’s body in that old recycling building,” she says. “Even then, I kept quiet because I didn’t want to raise any suspicions before I knew what was going on.”

The police were going from house to house, asking neighbours if they saw or knew anything about the incident.

Fearing that Motapane might hear her mentioning his name to the police, Khulo asked one of the officers to give her his contact number. When she got home, she called the officer and asked to meet him at the local police station.

“I got to the station and told them exactly what I saw that Sunday afternoon and how Keabetswe seemed agitated. I then asked them to bring Modise and allow me to talk to him before they started questioning (him).”

The police granted Khulo’s request, and she asked Motapane where he had gone with the little girl after she saw them together.

“Modise first denied ever seeing me or going after Keabetswe. Then he said he remembered seeing and greeting me but he didn’t see Keabetswe – I knew then that something was fishy,” Khulo said.

Motapane was arrested and charged.

The talk on Letseka Street is that, after being interrogated, he confessed.

Motapane appeared briefly in the Palm Ridge Magistrates’ Court on Wednesday. The case was postponed to Thursday, when he is expected to apply for bail.

Neighbour Blantina Khulo was walking home on Sunday when the Keabetswe Tshabalala ran past her, looking ‘agitated’, followed by the man who’s now charged with raping and murdering her. Picture: Elizabeth Sejake/City Press

Mokonopi's mother came to say sorry

On Tuesday, Keneilwe Tshabalala and her mother, Matsietsi Motloung, were at home when an elderly woman arrived.

Keneilwe recognised her – and so did everybody in the room who had come to pay their respects to the grieving family.

She was the mother of one of their neighbours, Sello Mokonopi, who was taken away in a police van earlier this year after he was arrested for rape.

His alleged victim? A seven-year-old girl.

His best friend? Isaac Modise Motapane.

Modise and Mokonopi were inseparable before Mokonopi’s arrest, and were often spotted strolling down Letseka Street on Sundays, wearing the Zion Christian Church’s khaki uniform, green caps and boots.

Motloung was shocked when Mokonopi’s mother walked in.

“She doesn’t live in the vicinity and for her to come all the way to offer her condolences to people she hardly knew was unexpected.”

Her reason for visiting was even more unexpected: the weeping woman believed that if she had not tried to get her son out of jail, Keabetswe might still be alive.

Mokonopi spent a few years in jail after allegedly raping an eight-year-old girl. Like the seven-year-old he now stands accused of raping, she was one of his neighbours.

About two years ago, he returned to Letseka Street.

Motloung explained: “She told us about how she went from one loan shark to another looking for money to pay the best advocate in town to help get her son out of jail (after he was arrested for the eight-year-old’s rape).

“She said she wished she had not done it because Modise would have known that if he did the same, he would rot in jail.

“I have never heard a mother say that she wished her son had been killed in prison because it would have sent a strong message to others like him. But Sello’s mother uttered those words and I believe that she meant it.”

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