Tragedy of a mind in turmoil

2011-04-09 16:26

What could have transformed Joseph Ntshongwana from a ­well-educated young rugby star with a bright future into an alleged axe murderer with the blood of three innocent men on his hands?

This is the question his family – and the families of the three men he allegedly hacked to death in a two-week killing spree – have been grappling with every day since his arrest last week.

Ntshongwana’s father, Liston – a former African Springbok and Transkei diplomat who travelled to Durban for his son’s court appearance on Thursday – told City Press of his family’s three-year battle with Joseph’s deteriorating mental health.

The family have, on three occasions, been forced to call the police to have their towering 34-year-old son hospitalised for treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

They have also had to track him down as far afield as Cape Town after he ran away to avoid his treatment regime.

“For the past three years we have understood that he is mentally not well. We first recognised bouts of depression and excitement, inconsistent behaviour and a lack of good which we had not seen in him before,” Liston said.

“We first took him to doctors and then to psychologists and psychiatrists, and he was hospitalised at RK Khan in Durban, Groote Schuur and eventually Valkenberg in Cape Town.

“The saddest thing is that he himself does not understand that he is not well. This is what makes mental illness so difficult: he was physically in good condition but was behaving in a way that the family and society did not expect and could not understand,” the father said.

“On three occasions he had to be hospitalised and we had to ask the police to get him to hospital. He absconded from hospital twice and we had to search for him.”

Liston said his son had escaped from Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town and was picked up by police, who helped the family get him into Valkenberg mental hospital.

In the middle of last year he was released from Valkenberg into the family’s care, on condition that he undergo drug therapy and counselling.

“We had to ensure that he took his medication at specific times; that he had a specific diet; and that he be under supervision at various times.

“We were really concerned at the time of his release, but we were hopeful that he would stabilise and that he would be OK,” Liston Ntshongwana said.

“As an African, these issues (of mental illness) are foreign to us. It was only when I began reading and researching that I understood his illness and hoped that if he adhered to treatment he would stabilise.”

Liston said that earlier in his son’s life there had been nothing to indicate he was mentally ill.

“He was a quiet, humble fellow. He loved his sport and his physical conditioning. He didn’t drink or smoke that I knew of.

“He was always a respectful child. We raised him with a strong family value system which was based on Christian belief.

“We tried to send him to good schools for him to get the kind of exposure, influence and values which we believed would help him in life,” said Liston.

“We never expected this. There was no indication, no symptoms, at that time. This came like a bolt of lightning out of nowhere.”

The father said that after injury cut his son’s rugby career short around 2006, he started to study IT, which he was “passionate” about.

“He was dedicated to his studies, but something was clearly wrong. This was when he started to show the symptoms which led to him being hospitalised,” said Liston.

At court on Thursday, Liston and his daughter, Luleka, expressed their sympathy for Joseph’s alleged victims and the pain their families have had to endure.

“We are deeply saddened by the fact that they have been the victims of these grave acts associated with my son. We extend our deepest sympathy to them.

“We have a profound understanding of the pain they have had to endure,’ said Liston.

“We, and they, are battling to come to terms with what has happened and to understand it.”

On Thursday Joseph’s lawyers will request that the court send him for 30 days of psychiatric observation to determine whether he is fit to stand trial.


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