Good can follow bad

2008-12-23 00:00

As a journalist, you learn to expect the unexpected, but not how to remain untouched. On September 9, I found myself with two Zimbabweans, Robert Madzogo and his sister Patience, in my car, wending our way through late afternoon traffic to a private clinic in Northdale where, I was told, their brother Ian, a mechanic, was being treated for burns inflicted the previous night by his bosses.

We had to wait while the then 23-year-old Ian was being questioned by two police investigators, one of whom took extra care to glare at me as he passed us in the corridor.

When I finally managed to slip into Ian’s ward, I found a swollen body wrapped from neck to ankles in seeping bandages. The raw patch of weeping red flesh under his arm and at his neck, and massive blisters on an exposed piece of arm hinted at the full horror of his wounds. He was just about to be transferred to a state hospital because money allegedly promised for treatment from his two employers — brothers Rakesh and Ramesh Haripersad, who would become “the accused” and then “the former accused” in a short-lived case of attempted murder — had dried up.

Ian was agitated, distressed and clearly in shock. He gave me his version of events, but said he was too frightened to have a story appear in the newspaper. He said the Haripersads had accused him of theft, a charge he denies. When he refused to “confess”, he said the Haripersads tried to shoot him and then forced another Zimbabwean employee to burn his private parts with a candle. Finally, he said, they doused him with thinners and set him alight. Ian was adamant there was a xenophobic edge to comments made during the attack.

He allowed me to take a couple of photographs which would at least capture the extent of his injuries, but without revealing his identity. Shortly thereafter, a hospital orderly came in to fetch him to transfer him to Grey’s Hospital.

Robert (26) insisted on staying with his younger brother. It was the first sign of a touching protectiveness I would witness many times in my interactions with the brothers. During Ian’s long stay in hospital, I often watched Robert feed Ian and once I even sat through an intimate teeth-brushing session.

That evening, I forced some taxi money on Robert and took Patience back to town. She was expecting some associates to arrive from Zimbabwe later that night and needed to find them a place to stay. Existing accommodation plans had been thrown into disarray following the attack on Ian. They would probably end up sleeping on the floor and she needed to find blankets to soften the experience.

It was a week after the incident that my story about Ian’s ordeal finally appeared in The Witness, although Ian was not named. Thereafter, he received visits from a Cosatu delegation, the Health MEC and other local dignitaries. My Witness colleagues covered the visits as news stories.

Fast-forward to November 18: while Ian was waiting to be discharged from Grey’s Hospital where he’d spent the best part of three months being treated for burn wounds over 60% of his body and receiving a skin graft, Robert was sitting alone in regional court A waiting for the Haripersads’ second court appearance on charges of attempted murder.

Weeks before their first appearance, Robert had walked across town to the Magistrate’s Court, simply to ensure that, when the day came, he would know where to go. Anyway, he had plenty of time to kill, having not returned to his job — also with the Haripersads — after his brother’s attack.

That day, the cases came and went, and eventually ended. Robert told me afterwards that he could hardly hear the magistrate and there was no one he felt he could ask about what was happening.

So Robert left the building unaware that his brother’s case had just slipped quietly through a crack in the South African criminal justice system; that the charges had been withdrawn because of “insufficient witnesses”. Apparently, one of Ian’s colleagues who witnessed the incident had fled back to Zimbabwe.

Candidate attorney Nikita Munro, who works for Hay & Scott attorneys, is one of several people who reminds us that good can follow bad. Upon learning of Ian’s plight, she undertook to help the brothers pro bono. Although she’s still trying, she’s been unable thus far to get the charges reinstated, despite meetings with senior prosecutors and the Mountain Rise investigating officer, Inspector S. A. Makhathini.

“The investigating officer says the prosecution is not prepared to reinstate criminal charges because of insufficient witnesses. They are not going to let Ian have his day in court, despite the fact that in rape cases, there is often only one witness — the victim,” Munro told me.

Munro is not alone in her concern for the Madzogos. There have been other individuals — one of whom wants to remain anonymous — who have made financial donations to Ian and his family. After Ian put in an application, he received a small once-off grant from a Zimbabwe faith-based organisation working in South Africa.

Pat Dewes, a senior litigation attorney with Venn Nemeth & Hart, stepped forward soon after the story was published with an offer to represent Ian for free in a civil case which is still pending.

Ian’s story also struck a chord with a local woman, who is currently housing the two Madzogo brothers in a newly renovated room in her back yard. In order to protect the brothers from possible harm, she felt she couldn’t be identified.

“I saw the first story in The Witness and was concerned, but carried on. When I saw the second article, I thought, no: something has to be done. I phoned the hospital and asked Ian if I could visit him. And we took it from there.”

Ian says he doesn’t know where he would have gone if not for this kind woman’s intervention. “It would have been very hard for us,” he told me. When it became clear that his more serious wounds still needed regular professional attention, the woman sought help from a local pharmacist who has undertaken to change Ian’s dressings without charge.

The woman made an appeal through The Witness and her church for money for Ian’s family in Zimbabwe. His wife, heavily pregnant at the time of the attack on her husband, has now given birth to a baby boy called Liam, but is without the money regularly sent to her from her husband in South Africa. One of her parishioners has found a job for Robert, at least until the new year, in the underfloor heating business.

In-between his day job, Robert makes wire flowers and sells his craft around the city. Every morning before he leaves for work, he prepares food for Ian to eat during the day. “There’s no aggression, bitterness or anger from these two men,” says their new landlady. “Just bewilderment at what has happened to them. It’s a privilege to have them here.”

Ian reckons he’ll take a few more months to heal properly. While he’ll spend Christmas with his siblings and cousins in Pietermaritzburg, he’s also anxious to visit his wife and meet his first-born son. As with millions of other Zimbabweans in South Africa, the long-term future of him and his siblings depends on how things pan out politically in Zimbabwe. What is certain is that the night of September 8 will never be forgotten. But perhaps neither will the kindnesses that followed.

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