The sisters were like two peas in a pod, sharing a bedroom and telling each other everything. They complemented each other, Bontle Mokoena says – her little sister was outgoing and sociable and loved interacting with people, while she was more of a homebody.
Now the other bed in Bontle’s bedroom is empty and a gaping hole has been left in her life too. Karabo Mokoena, her beloved younger sister, is gone forever and Bontle is still battling to come to terms with the fact she’ll never see her coming through the door of their home again.
Karabo (22) became a symbol of the scourge of gender-based violence in South Africa when she was murdered last year, allegedly by her boyfriend, Sandile Mantsoe. Mantsoe, a forex trader, is accused of killing Karabo in his luxury Sandton apartment and stuffing her in a Pikitup bin before loading it into his car.
He then allegedly drove to a stretch of veld in Lyndhurst near Joburg, placed a tyre around her neck and set her body alight. In the immediate aftermath of the horror, Bontle (28) was too traumatised to speak and the sisters’ mom, Lollo, spoke exclusively to DRUM in an emotional interview shortly before Karabo’s funeral (We can’t say goodbye, 25 May 2017).
Now, months later, Bontle is finally ready to talk and opens up about missing her baby sister and starting a foundation in Karabo’s name with her mom and some of her sister’s best friends. Some good has to come out of all this, she says.
The last time we were at the Mokoenas’ Diepkloof, Soweto, home the lounge was filled with mourners speaking in hushed voices. Today it’s just Bontle. She apologises on her mom’s behalf – Lollo won’t be joining us because she’s recovering from flu.
“I miss Karabo so much,” says Bontle, who works as an HR administrator.
“She was the other half of me. “She’d often ask, ‘What are you doing after work?’, and if she was here now we’d be making plans to go out. But life is very different now she’s gone.”
The flood of public outrage that followed Karabo’s murder was overwhelming, she adds, and made it all the harder to deal with their grief. “We just wanted a regular funeral with family and friends. It was all too much.”
There’s a six-year age gap between the siblings and Bontle was very much the big sister, especially when Karabo was testing the boundaries as a teenager.
“Whenever she did something I didn’t agree with, I’d reprimand her and she would rebel. “But when she turned 16 and I was in my 20s, I started to become her friend and we shared everything.”
Karabo was a real people magnet and had loads of friends – and unlike Bontle. who struggled to make friends, she wasn’t afraid to put herself out there. After Karabo died Bontle became even more guarded and paranoid about people’s intentions, especially men.
“It’s so hard dating and I don’t get invested in anyone. I want to concentrate on my career. After her funeral my eyes opened a bit more [to the harshness of the world].”
Two of Karabo’s best friends, Michelle Daka and Stephanie Leong, have maintained close contact with the Mokoena family since her death. They visit often and take Bontle out and the trio have become best friends. They decided to keep Karabo’s dream of opening a foundation for abused women alive, and launched the Karabo Mokoena Foundation late last year.
“The irony is that at the beginning of 2017, Karabo wanted to open a foundation,” says Michelle, who had partnered with Karabo on the proposed project. They planned to franchise an American organisation but after researching it and talking to people who understood the implication of such a franchise, they decided against the idea.
“We were advised that all the credit of the work we’d be doing here would go to the Americans,” Michelle says. They wanted to create an African-born company.
“Karabo connected with people’s hearts. She had so much to offer. I often told her she had the complete package – beauty inside and outside. “She had so much compassion for others, she had so many dreams. She was an inspiration and the light of her family,” Michelle says.
She admits the thought of a new year without Karabo in it “sucks”.
“Karabo was busy with so many things and she made so many connections that I know if she’d lived, she would’ve realised her dreams,” Bontle says. In a short space of time the Karabo Mokoena Foundation started working with various organisations concentrating on women and children, including House Group orphanage, Hadassah Treatment Centre for Women, The Frida Hartley Shelter and Nazareth House. And as they worked together to realise Karabo’s dream, Bontle, Michelle and Steph grew even closer.
“I hang out with Michelle and Steph every weekend,” Bontle says. “We speak every day and sometimes we have a sleepover. They are a big part of my life now.”
Yet while they have gone some way in helping ease one another’s pain, they all miss Karabo desperately. Some days are better than others, Michelle says. When it all gets too much, she and Bontle go to counselling sessions together to deal with their grief. Michelle feels like she failed her best friend. Days before her death, Karabo asked her, “What would you do if I die?” “I told her I’d say, ‘Here lays my beautiful friend’.”
She wishes she could’ve done something to prevent the tragedy but she also knows if she’d put pressure on Karabo to leave Sandile, she would’ve pushed her best friend away.
“Even when she asked for advice, Karabo already knew what she ought to do. I decided I was just going to be there for her through the pain.” Bontle, on the other hand, is struggling to get over the fact her sister’s alleged killer could just take her life and “think nothing of it”.
“Did he think nobody would find out what he’d done?” she says, struggling to hold back tears. “Did he think no one would miss her?” Sometimes she tries to convince herself this is all a nightmare and that her sister will come home tomorrow. Then reality sinks in with all its sickening harshness.
*This article was previously published in DRUM magazine