His blood ran cold as the enraged man charged at him. Primary school teacher Patrick Buthelezi wasn’t quite sure what was going on but there was no mistaking the old man’s fury – or that it was directed at him.
“You raped her!” the old man yelled. And so began a nightmare that would see the 48-year-old Durban teacher spend more than a year behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. He was eventually acquitted after his alleged victim admitted she had lied and the magistrate found no evidence linking him to any crime.
The teacher is now suing the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) for damages “of between R1 million and R2 million”, his lawyer, Viren Singh, says. “Mr Buthelezi was in custody for more than a year. His career was delayed, and there was a psychological impact on him too.”
The accusation devastated him,Patrick admits. He lost his fiancée and his freedom as he languished in jail and he is determined to see justice served.
He remembers the day life as he knew it came to an abrupt end as if it was yesterday. It was a Friday in November 2011 and he was in the passenger seat of a colleague’s car, about to head off to an event the school was hosting.
Suddenly they were approached by a trio of elderly people. “We could see they were angry. They went straight to my colleague and demanded he point out Mr Buthelezi. I got out of the car and a man ran at me and tried to hit me,” he says.
“He accused me of abusing a child. I was confused and moved away from him and we went to the staff room to see the then principal. The child’s relatives said they were transferring the child to another school because she’d been raped.” Patrick, who was the child’s Grade 4 class teacher, was in shock. “My initial thought was that she must have been abused by someone else. But I could see the hatred and anger in their eyes.”
Then the accusation came again. “The rapist is among us – it’s you and we want you behind bars,” one member of the group shouted. They couldn’t believe that he was still at the school, they added, as they had already laid charges against him and had expected him to be in police custody.
“I felt a sinking pain in my stomach. My career, my future, my whole life crumbled in a second. I knew it was all over for me.”
Patrick went home and “cried like a baby for the first time in my adult life. “I knew I was innocent but there was nothing I could do. “The next day he told his family and friends about the accusation and then called a lawyer. On his lawyer’s advice, he went to the Bhekithemba police station in Umlazi on the Sunday.
“I was somewhat hopeful after speaking to my lawyer, so I cooperated with the police. I thought going to the cops would work in my favour, but I was wrong. As soon as they realised who I was they locked me up. It was the longest night of my life,” he says. He applied for bail in court the next day but it was denied, as it would be again once his trial began.
“The whole thing felt like a bad dream,” Patrick says. “I didn’t know whether I was alive or dead.” He was suspended from his job pending the outcome of the trial, which got under way in 2012, although it was frequently delayed by postponements. The stress of the delays “was slowly killing me inside,” he says.
Patrick had mounting legal costs. His career was in limbo. And then his fiancée dumped him.
“She told me she was tired of waiting for me. I had no choice but to let her go. ”By the end of the year he was losing hope. He was out of money and drowning in debt, having spent nearly R200 000 defending himself. He was ready to call it quits. “I was prepared to serve whatever jail term was handed to me,” he says. Instead, the Umlazi Regional Court acquitted him and he was a free man once more.
Patrick bears no ill will towards the girl or her family, whom he has not had any contact with since the trial. “I don’t hate the child. In fact, I forgave her. One of the things I learned in prison was forgiveness. What kept me going while I was locked up was meditation and prayer and I read the Bible a lot.”Patrick successfully sued the police and the NPA for unlawful detention for the 13 months he was held in custody. The KwaZulu-Natal High Court found he had been denied bail on the basis of the police’s allegation that another teacher had seen him rape the child an allegation the teacher denied. Patrick told the court he only found out during his criminal trial that the girl had implicated him as the alleged rapist after she’d been “threatened or received a hiding” from her aunt.
The court also found that although the prosecution knew there was no DNA or other evidence linking Patrick to the crime, his lawyer was told about it only in August 2012, when Patrick had been jailed for nearly nine months. The investigating officer, the court found, “was evasive and did not make a good impression on the court. He was instrumental in withholding vital evidence from the court”.
His next step is to sue for damages and his lawyer believes they have a good chance of getting up to R2 million as the NPA and the police have already been found wanting in a court of law. Elaine Zungu, the acting director of public prosecutions, has defended the NPA, saying “the prosecutor during the trial told the court that at the time she made the decision to oppose bail, she believed that she had a strong case against the accused. It is clear that she subjectively believed that she had done what was correct.”
Zungu could not say if the NPA would be opposing Patrick’s claim. Patrick has since been appointed deputy principal at Isidingo Primary School. “I was happy to be out of prison, but I am sad that I spent more than a year in prison for nothing. This is not about money – it’s about the pain and psychological impact on me.”
He isn’t sure if he will ever fully recover, he adds. “I’ve kept my blue jail card with me as a reminder that I was once wrongfully imprisoned. I am using it to teach children and adults that lies can destroy people’s lives.” Patrick is also planning to write a book about his ordeal and hopes to meet his accuser and her family. “Honestly, I would also like to meet them so that we can all move on. At the same time, I want them to know I have forgiven them.”