Desperate to warn youngsters

2012-09-15 00:00

OCTAVIA Malevu knew her decision to fetch a “parcel” from Bangkok in Thailand was a risky venture. But for R10 000, the risk seemed worth it.

It wasn’t. In the end she spent 18 years in a cramped Thai prison for trying to smuggle out four kilograms of heroin.

Malevu (49) returned home to Durban last week and told of her regrets in an exclusive interview with Weekend Witness yesterday.

“I was naïve. I did it for the money.”

Malevu has missed a lot over the decades — she was arrested just a week before the country’s first democratic elections. As a South African citizen, she has yet to cast a vote.

Her son, whose name she asked to withhold, is now 30 and grew up through his teen years without his mother. His father died about two years after Malevu was jailed.

And on Thursday she had her first birthday outside of prison walls, an event that almost passed without celebration, until a friend came by in the evening with a birthday cake.

She speaks openly about her crime and her time in the miserable confines of Thasathan Ying Klang prison, formerly known as Lard Yao.

Some recollections bring forth tears, like the first letter she got from her grandmother telling her to bear up. “She told me to be strong and pray. I didn’t explain much to her.”

In fact, her family didn’t even know she was in Thailand. Malevu was living in Johannesburg at the time, working as a hairdresser and making clothes.

Bills were piling up and she was finding it hard to make ends meet.

Then a salon client told her she could make a quick buck retrieving a package from Thailand. Sufficiently tempted, Malevu left for Bangkok on April 9, 1994.

The job was scheduled for her departure date and so, on April 22, she picked up a bag from an empty room in her hotel and went to the airport.

“I never knew what was in it, I thought it might have been money. When they stopped me and opened the bag, they asked me where the heroin came from. I had no idea what it was. I didn’t know about drugs.”

Her suspicions about the parcel suddenly came true. Instead of flying home, she was thrown into prison and faced life behind bars.

Also in jail with her was former Miss SA finalist Vanessa Goosen, who became a close friend. Goosen was released in 2010 after serving 16 years for heroin smuggling — a crime she denies — and was on hand to meet Malevu in Johannesburg.

Malevu’s release came courtesy of a pardon on August 12, as part of the Thai queen’s birthday celebrations.

Picking at a muffin (her appetite has suffered from a recent illness), Malevu said prison was “terrible”.

Up to 200 women were squeezed into a cell and at night every inch of floor space was occupied by an inmate. She said they were given a large towel and a small pillow to sleep on, and two toilets — essentially a pair of holes in the ground — was the sum total of their ablutions.

The queues were so long in the morning, she said, that some women messed themselves right there.

At night, massive rats would move in and sniff out whatever food was lying around. “When the cats saw the rats, they ran. The rats were huge.”

Food consisted of rice and boiled vegetables, or soupy stews with pumpkin or sweet potatoes.

And then there were the prison fights, which Malevu avoided at all costs, “except for a few slaps” she dished out in self-defence.

Mostly, she worked in the laundry room and within two years had learnt to speak Thai fluently, a skill she hopes to put to use as a translator. She is also desperate to take her story to schools as a message of warning to youngsters.

“A lot of girls arrested for drugs take a step without thinking twice. The temptation of quick money can destroy your life.”

For now she is living in kwaMashu with her grandmother and spending time with the young man she left behind as a son all those years ago.

• The Department of International Relations and Co-operation knows of 12 South Africans jailed for drug smuggling in Thailand prisons.

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