One murder, five devastated families

Bongiwe Ninini's mother Nomlozi Ninini (Jenni Evans, News24)
Bongiwe Ninini's mother Nomlozi Ninini (Jenni Evans, News24)

Cape Town - The mother of murdered Khayelitsha woman Bongiwe Ninini rested her head on the cool granite of the Western Cape High Court on Monday, distressed by the delay in sentencing the four men found guilty of killing her daughter.

“I am stressed,” said Nomlozi Ninini.

Ninini's aunts and a neighbour formed a protective cordon around her as she stood in her simple brown Shweshwe dress outside the court, the anguish showing in her face. Also with her was Nosiphelele Msesiwe of the Social Justice Coalition. The organisation makes a point of sending at least one person to every court case involving violence against a woman or a child, as a show of support to the victims' families.

“I am worried. I want the case to get finished,” said Mrs Ninini.

On July 18, 2015, 19-year-old Bongiwe was found in an open cement drain in a veld in Khayelitsha. She had been so severely beaten that she sustained serious brain, skull, and facial injuries. She had been dragged and hit with a spade.

It was cold comfort for Bongiwe's domestic worker mother when the four men were arrested. They were Bongiwe's ex-boyfriend Phumlani Nyewu, and Masimthembe Solontsi, Melikhaya Mgushelo and Thabiso Balithoba.

They were found guilty of her murder on December 6.

Over the edge

Mrs Ninini was among the around 13 people in the public gallery of the court to watch the men who killed her daughter receive their sentence on Monday. There was no scrambling for photographs, international media crews, jostling for seats, or phalanx of ANC Women's League matrons in the public gallery.

Even Acting Judge Mustak Parker wondered aloud at one stage whether the apparent lack of widespread interest in the case meant that society had become so desensitised that Bongiwe's murder seemed commonplace.

According to the pre-sentencing report by correctional services officials, Bongiwe's death left Mrs Ninini so grief-stricken that she found refuge in alcohol. Her family had to intervene to bring her back from the brink of despair.

The single mother had already learned to live with the death of her first-born. He was stabbed to death on his way to a tuck shop in Philippi in 2004. Bongiwe's death sent her over the edge. An aunt had to move in with her to help her cope, and to help raise her remaining child, who is disabled.

She had to take sleeping tablets and would find herself staring into space, just thinking of her 19-year-old daughter. She missed her “family-oriented, warm, funny” child. Her last-born had styled women's hair in the area to help her mother with money and promised to buy her a house one day.

Stable backgrounds

Mrs Ninini told correctional services officials that she had not expected any help from the four killer's families. She was hurt that they had not at least approached her to offer words of comfort.

According to the pre-sentencing reports for the four men, Bongiwe's murder had a profound effect on their families too.

All four were described as coming from stable, although challenging, backgrounds.

Grandmothers and aunts who battled to make ends meet raised them. Correctional services officials noted that although they could have been drawn into the gang or drug culture in some parts of Khayelitsha, they had all managed to avoid it. All went to initiation school.

Nyewu's girlfriend fell pregnant when she was 14. Out of a sense of duty he left school to work as a griller at Wynberg Steers so he could provide for the baby. He did not return after initiation school, but had been no trouble to his family.

Balithoba also dropped out of school due to financial pressures. He had been going to Adult Basic Education and Training classes at the time of his arrest, and worked as a painter.

Mgushelo moved around a lot as a result of his father dying at a young age. He dropped out an electrical engineering course in Cape Town. At the time of his arrest, he was on a bursary studying business management.

His brother was sent to the Eastern Cape to be away from Khayelitsha because he was feeling suicidal about what had happened in his family.

Solontsi was moved from province to province to stay with relatives as his single mother struggled to see to all his needs. He eventually moved in with his mother and stepfather in Khayelitsha when they married in 2008. His girlfriend gave birth to his child a week before he was arrested.

‘Easy but difficult’

Solontsi defended himself during his pre-sentencing hearing on Monday, after his lawyer dumped him because there was no more money to pay him.

During the trial, the court heard that Bongiwe went to visit Nyewu and the other three the night she was killed. She arrived with a bottle of brandy at the back yard room he lived in. The five of them listened to music and drank.

Parker said the trial never established why she was killed. There had been an argument when her bangle broke on the door, but it never became clear why she was beaten, rolled into a sheet, and dumped, nor why none of the four stopped her from being killed.

“This case is easy, but difficult,” said Parker.

“Easy because the facts speak for themselves. Difficult because the four of you are young, with no sign of criminality. It is difficult because I can't make sense of what happened that night. I certainly can't. The consequences are horrendous.”

He said her murder had left broken families, devastation, and profound loss.

“I must find a sentence that is not motivated by anger or revenge,” he said.

Bongiwe's mother and the four men and their families will have to wait until Monday, February 13, to learn if Parker will deviate from the life imprisonment sentences the State has asked for.

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