'Living like a jailbird was no joke', says Durban man imprisoned for 13 years on false rape claim

2018-11-02 16:12
Njabulo Ndlovu was a 19-year-old law student at the University of Durban-Westville when he was falsely accused and imprisoned for 13 years (Drum)

Njabulo Ndlovu was a 19-year-old law student at the University of Durban-Westville when he was falsely accused and imprisoned for 13 years (Drum)

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Njabulo Ndlovu was a 19-year-old law student at the University of Durban-Westville – now the University of KwaZulu-Natal - when a young pregnant woman accused him and 10 other men of raping her at a tavern in 2002.

When the prison gates clanged behind him, he made his way straight to the beach to cleanse himself – symbolically as well as physically.

For 13 long years he’d been dreaming of the smell and feeling of freedom - the waves wash against his skin, the sea air and the sand beneath his toes.

Ndlovu then made his way to his parents’ house in Umlazi, Durban, where something else he’d dreamt of all those long years was waiting for him - the taste of freedom – braai meat.

'I’d finally regained my freedom'

It’s a couple of days since Njabulo was released from Westville Prison and it’s still hard for him to come to terms with the fact he’s finally free. The 35-year-old made headlines recently after a court ruled he’d been falsely imprisoned after being found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit.

And that crime was one of the most heinous there is: rape. Gang rape. Njabulo was sentenced to life behind bars but continued to fight for justice and freedom. Now, thanks to the help of an old university friend, he’s done it.

“When the court ruled in my favour it felt as if something had been taken off my back,” he says. “I’d finally regained my freedom. I had been vindicated.”

The high court in Pietermaritzburg acquitted him of rape and released him from prison after the judge found there was no DNA evidence linking him to the crime.

He also raised concerns over the conduct of the magistrate who presided over Njabulo’s trial.

Then a warder told Njabulo: “You are free as a bird”.

'Living like a jailbird was no joke'

Everything crumbled the night a young pregnant woman accused him and 10 other men of raping her at a tavern in 2002.

Njabulo knew the woman – she was a neighbour and family friend and her dad worked with Njabulo’s father. He told the court he’d seen her on the night of the attack but he didn’t rape her. In fact, he was at home when the assault happened.

The court didn’t believe him and he was sentenced to life in prison along with two other men. He appealed but had no luck and so he resigned himself to making the most of a terrible situation. But it was tough, he tells DRUM.

“Living like a jailbird was no joke. I was still so young and looking forward to finishing my LLB. I thought of my parents and the pain they must have been going through.”

“After I was sentenced I gave up on life for a while. I thought my dreams of becoming a lawyer were over and there was nothing more I could do.

“But a couple of months later I decided the justice system wasn’t bad – instead a few individuals, including magistrates, can make bad decisions. That helped me a lot and I began my healing process.”

'The unqualified lawyer'

He resumed his studies through Unisa while in jail and was nicknamed “the unqualified lawyer” by fellow inmates and warders – although they had to change it to “the lawyer” when he passed his degree with flying colours. Njabulo tried to keep out of trouble as much as possible.

“I’d be lying if I said something bad happened to me while I was in prison. As much as I witnessed gangsterism and stabbings and other bad things I was never a victim of them.

“I was always careful not to engage in such activities. At one point I was told to choose a gang I wanted to belong to but I refused. I just didn’t see the benefit.”

He continued to fantasize about his freedom – and luckily for him, one person hadn’t forgotten him. Andile Magubane, an old friend from university, intervened to try to give him his life back.

Andile recalls going to Njabulo’s parents’ home the day after his friend had been sentenced for life and being told he was in jail. He went to see him in prison and, believing in his innocence, promised to do what he could to help.

“Njabulo was even a gentleman in prison,” he says. “He’s a good man.”

Andile took on the case in 2015.

“One of the challenges was getting funds for the case,” Njabulo says. “I was lucky because Andile did his part free of charge, but my family still had to pay for an advocate. We spent over R100 000 on high court fees.”

Asking for forgiveness

Andile was the one who discovered there was no DNA evidence to incriminate his friend and the court finally agreed.

Njabulo’s parents, Mbuso and Makhosazana (both 64), still can’t believe their son is once again sitting in the living room with them. They did everything they could to prove Njabulo’s innocence.

Mbuso used a chunk of the retrenchment package he received as a shop steward for an oil company as well as his wife’s salary as a cleaner to pay for Njabulo’s legal fees and his Unisa law course. Despite his innocence Njabulo sent his accuser a letter from prison asking for forgiveness.

“Firstly, I didn’t want to harbour any negative feelings. Secondly, a formal reply from her could’ve helped me when I applied for parole.

'I could feel tears welling up'

“I phoned her and she confirmed she’d received the letter and she had nothing against me. But she still refused to write back and formalise her forgiveness. I could feel tears welling up. I’m the one who was wronged but I was the one who was apologising,” he says quietly.

“But I have made my peace with her now.” Njabulo is now having to “unlearn” the life of a prisoner and readjust to the outside world. One of his toughest battles is to come to terms with the loss of his older brother, Siyabonga, who died in a car crash in 2016.

“My brother was always there for me and checked up on me regularly,” he says. “He died while I was inside and I didn’t get a chance to say my goodbyes. I did ask permission to go to the funeral but I was denied that opportunity. I’m not sure how to deal with that pain,” he says. Njabulo is now planning to sue the minister of justice for false imprisonment – but first things first.

“What I need right now is a job. Now that I have my law degree I’m desperate to do my articles. I know it’s not going to be easy but I’m willing to start at the bottom. I also need to get a driver’s licence, I need to be computer literate and I want to have a family. When I went to prison I was young but I’m a lot older now and I can’t depend on my parents anymore. My friends are all working but I’m far behind in life. I need to catch up.”

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