Winner 2006

2008-07-22 00:00

It seemed like just another day at the Umlazi court. I stood on the veranda outside my office, sipping my coffee as I waited for the new dockets to arrive. The morning light was mild and had a bluish softness: it was the end of winter, or the beginning of spring.

I didn’t think I was going to be very busy that day. There were only two matters set down for trial, though there would inevitably be several new cases which would demand my attention. Being a prosecutor at a township court was quite an anti-climax after the fast pace of the big court in Durban, but for the first time I had time to think more carefully about the human-interest factor in the cases I was handling — and the implications of what role I was playing in the administration of justice.

A figure appeared on the driveway below, and I watched its progress towards the main entrance. It was an elderly man, and he wore a shabby sports jacket, perhaps a hand-me-down from an employer, although a new trilby graced his grizzled head. He looked respectable, and I wondered briefly if he was a witness, or the guardian of some wayward youth about to make his appearance on a charge of theft or something worse.

A loud rapping on my office door put an end to my speculation. The police liaison officer, his bull neck straining at the collar of his uniform, stood on the threshold, several buff-coloured police dockets in his hands.

“Morning, ma’am,” he said in a voice which resonated like restrained thunder. “New cases for you.”

“Thank you, sergeant,” I said, and signed the register, acknowledging receipt. “Not too many today?”

“Not too many,” he agreed, and then he was gone, no doubt back to his desk in the police liaison office, where the morning’s edition of Ilanga and a container of food packed by his wife awaited his attention.

I sat down at my desk, and looked at the dockets he had handed me. One was a robbery case, another was a theft. The word “murder” sprang out from the docket on the bottom of the pile, and I started when I saw it, as in those days Umlazi’s murder cases were referred to the Durban Court, where a specialist prosecutor handled all the paperwork with the Attorney General’s office. But then I noticed that the word, which had been written in bold felt-tipped pen, had been crossed out, and scrawled beside it in spidery ballpoint were the words “Concealment of Birth”. It was evidently a tragedy of a lesser magnitude.

Because it was a fairly unusual offence, we didn’t have any roneoed copies of the charge sheet annexure, which meant I would have to phone Durban and ask someone to read one out to me. It was 1995, and before the days when prosecutors had ready access to computers and e-mail. Deciding to get the easy stuff out of the way first, I reached for the theft docket.

Before I had even read the complainant’s statement, there was another tap on the door. I glanced up, and was half-surprised to see the man I had noticed walking along the driveway. “I am looking for the prosecutor,” he said in careful, halting English.

“That’s me,” I said, and introduced myself. “What can I do for you?”

He told me his name. I regret that I no longer recall it; I’ve handled thousands of cases, and I’m not great with names anyway. But perhaps that detail isn’t important now. “I was told by the policeman to come here today,” he said, looking at me with earnest, rheumy eyes. He had taken off his hat, and was holding it against his chest in a gesture of servility.

“Did the police officer give you any papers?” I thought that my visitor didn’t look like the sort of man who would understand the word subpoena.

“No, madam.”

“Well, what sort of case is it?”

“It is my wife,” he said simply. “The police took her away. Because of the baby.”

“Ah.”Comprehension began to dawn. I reached for the Concealment of Birth docket, and opened it.

“Madam. I need to explain it to you. Please.” The wizened face across the table was quietly desperate. “My wife, she did nothing bad. We didn’t know it was wrong to bury the child under the floor.”

I’ve heard all sorts of excuses in my time, some of them downright bizarre, and my inclination was to tell him to wait in the courtroom, where a Legal Aid attorney would be appointed to defend his wife. But something in his eyes stopped me, touching a chord I couldn’t name.

“All right, then,” I said, and I picked up the phone and called the Grille Sergeant, and asked him whether he had a woman in custody charged with concealment of birth. He confirmed that he had, and I told the old man that his wife had arrived, and that I would have a look at the docket and would listen to their story before court started. He looked bewildered rather than relieved as he left my office.

Seated at my cluttered desk, I began perusing the contents of the docket. It wasn’t very thick. The first statement was from a police officer, who had received a tip-off that a baby might have been murdered. He proceeded to the accused’s house, and questioned her, and she had showed him a patch of recently-disturbed soil in the corner of the bedroom. He started digging, and unearthed a dead baby. The body had been removed to the mortuary, and had sustained no further injuries while under his care.

Next was a statement from a neighbour, who stated that she had observed that the accused had looked pregnant, but that suddenly she was pregnant no longer, though no baby had appeared. This led her to suspect that her neighbour had either had an illegal abortion, or had committed infanticide, and she called the police. There was a medical report from the District Surgeon who had examined the accused, and who expressed the opinion that she had recently given birth, and there was a post mortem report for the baby. It was a female infant of approximately thirty two weeks gestational age, with the umbilical cord still attached, and in the pathologist’s opinion, it had been stillborn, as no portion of its lungs floated when placed in water, no doubt the reason why the initial charge of murder had been commuted to one of mere concealment of birth.

The story the statements told seemed simple enough, and was not even all that different to other similar cases I had handled. This docket had an album of photographs, though, a clear indication of a diligent and enthusiastic investigating officer who evidently took pride in his work, and I examined them with more than my usual level of interest. They told their own tale, and began with a shot of the house where the tragedy had happened, a small dwelling with mud walls, standing between straggly banana trees. The focus then moved indoors to a small, gloomy room with a bed, a sagging curtain pinned over the window, and a cardboard box which served as a table. There was a photograph of a disturbed patch of soil on the floor, and another of the start of the excavations, revealing a pitiful white-wrapped bundle. And finally, in the last picture, the blanket was pulled back from a minute face, with eyes that would never open, and a silent mouth opened in the stillness of death — or sleep.

I frowned. I had assumed that the accused had indeed somehow procured an abortion, but the pictures suggested otherwise. There was something moving about the way the body had been tenderly wrapped in what appeared to be a new white blanket, and I sensed that it was not a callous act of indifference. And that troubled me.

Like all prosecutors, I’m trained to be businesslike, and to handle my cases with emotional detachment. But as I pulled on my black court robe, I found myself haunted by the last photograph of that tiny dead face. I was 35, and I had devoted too much of my life to my career, and somehow hadn’t found the time to settle down. And whether I liked it or not, the proverbial biological clock had started ticking. I was childless, and I desperately wanted a child, and distancing myself from this little tragedy with all its ramifications of pregnancy, birth and lost hopes wasn’t going to be as easy as I wanted it to be.

Recalling my promise to the old man, I asked that the accused be brought from the holding cell, and with the aid of my interpreter, I asked her and her husband why they had done what they had. She did not meet my eye, which I knew to be a sign of respect, and simply looked down at her feet in their decrepit shoes. It was the man who answered on her behalf.

Yes, he said, they did not deny that the child had been born dead and had been buried in the bedroom. There was a good reason why they had done that. Many of the people in the township practised magic. They believed that body parts from newborn babies could be used to make powerful muti, the kind which could help a man get rid of his enemies, or win the Lotto. Only a month before, another baby’s body had been stolen out of the graveyard. He and his wife were Christians, and did not approve of such things. In burying their stillborn child beneath the floor, they had only hoped to spare her desecration and indignity.

“We buried her yesterday,” he added, reaching for a handkerchief and dabbing at his eyes. “In the cemetery near the shop. I sat there most of the night to make sure the muti man didn’t take her away.”

I turned away. I had heard enough. This wasn’t crime, it wasn’t a wilful disregard for the laws which stated that bodies had to be disposed of in certain ways, or stillbirths reported. This was painful innocence in a fetid world: a tiny, private tragedy as pathetic as it was poignant. Picking up my pen, I wrote that I declined to prosecute on the face of the docket, and signed the form which entitled the accused to be released from custody. Then I sent the orderly to call the magistrate, and picked up my first trial docket for the day.

I tried to lead my first witness with my usual detachment, but within, I felt stirred and heartsore. Memories of that little face and the gruesome reason why a respectable couple had been driven to commit an offence throbbed within me. It was a reminder that sometimes in this job, it’s hard to know who is the criminal, and who the victim. And that all I can do is hope that I have been just, and merciful.

* Wendy Greef has been writing fiction since she was eight. Her greatest success was winning the Ronnie Govender Literary Award in 2005 for her novel A Cairn of Stones. A prosecutor for the last 20 years, she is soon to take up a post with The Scorpions. She is married to Durban designer Quintin Greeff and, when not writing, enjoys travelling and good wine.

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