She wept when the judge handed down his verdict. The man she’d spent years hunting – the man who’d ruined the lives of so many women – was going to be locked away for the rest of his life.
In one of the longest punishments ever meted out by the South African justice system, serial rapist Sello Abram Mapunya was sentenced to five life terms and 1088 years in prison.
During a five-year-reign of terror, Mapunya attacked at least 56 women in Tshwane’s suburbs of Olievenhoutbosch, Atteridgeville, Silverton, Nellmapius and Mamelodi. His oldest victim was 55, his youngest 14.
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During his sentencing, Judge Papi Mosopa described 33-year-old Mapunya as an evil man hell-bent on preying on society’s most vulnerable – and the fact that he showed no remorse added to his long sentence.
For Sergeant Catherine Tladi, hearing Mapunya would spend the rest of his life behind bars was like music to her ears.
“He raped mothers in front of their daughters, he raped daughters in front of mothers, he raped wives in front of their husbands – you can imagine the pain,” she says.
“Those people were hurting. You read their stories and you crack.”
Catherine, who’s attached to the Serial Electronic Crime Investigations (SECI) Provincial Head Office in Gauteng, headed the team of investigators who worked on the high-profile case.
For the past three years, getting the serial rapist behind bars was her top priority – and her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by the police’s top brass. She singles out a call she got from police minister Bheki Cele.
“He phoned to say he was proud of me, that was amazing,” she says. “I really want to thank him for recognising my work.”
It’s important for the men and women in blue to feel like they’re valued, but even without recognition she’ll continue bringing criminals to book.
“For me, it’s more than just work,” Catherine says. “It’s a calling I must fulfil.”
This case was a very personal one for Catherine, who’s a rape survivor herself. She was just 13 when she was gang raped at gunpoint near her home in Atteridgeville. “As a child I lived in fear because my attackers were never caught,” she tells us.
“I was also angry I lost my virginity because I wanted to keep it until I said I do.”
She eventually picked up the pieces and moved on with her life and married the love of her life, Bently Tladi. The couple have been together for 22 years and have four children.
Catherine (44) joined the South African Police Service in 2002 after Bently, who’s a continuous professional learning manager at Transnet, suggested she apply for a job as a police officer.
At the time she’d put aside her psychology studies to raise their second child and becoming a cop was the furthest thing from her mind. “When my husband came with a form and said the police are hiring, I said, ‘me a police officer? I will not hold a gun’.”
But joining SAPS and eventually the SECI unit gave her the purpose she’d been longing for. “It’s fulfilling to give back what you never had,” she says. “I feel like I lived most my life feeling naked. By doing this, I’m clothing these women. I’m covering their flaws, their fears and their pain.”
She’s seen a lot of horrors in her 19 years on the job, but the Pretoria serial rapist case was by far the worst one she’s worked on. Hunting down Mapunya was like looking for a needle in a haystack.
With the support of her family, Catherine spent many hours trying to crack the case and Bently (46) often drove her to townships late at night helping her trace victims and witnesses because they feared for her safety.
In 2019 the investigating team got the breakthrough they needed when they traced a stolen phone to Mapunya’s girlfriend. Mapunya had a habit of robbing his victims and gave one of the phones to his girlfriend, the mother of his two children.
Detectives tracked the phone to a Pretoria shopping mall where the woman worked as a cleaner. “She took the team to where Mapunya was and they arrested him,” Catherine says.
The cellphone alone wasn’t enough to convict him, though. Detectives relied on DNA tests to prove Mapunya was the man they’d been looking for.
When she saw him in handcuffs, Catherine was overcome with emotion.
“I cried with relief because I knew if we didn’t catch him, he wouldn’t stop.”
Now Mapunya is behind bars, no one would blame Catherine for taking a well-deserved holiday. But that’s not the case for this top cop. “You can’t take me on a holiday and think I’ll come back revitalised,” she says. “I refresh when I see someone heal.”
Catherine has already set her sights another tough case: she’s investigating incidents where several women were raped, robbed and dumped after using an e-hailing service. “It really is a sad case,” she says.
“Do we have such a broken society, such broken men – what kind of boys did we raise? You sit and you and think when is it going to stop and get better?”
She gets through the dark days by relying on her faith, family and friends. Catherine describes herself as a woman of prayer who enjoys gospel music and when she’s not catching criminals, she loves going to church.
Catherine and Bently are also very involved in their community in Pretoria and in 2010 they launched outreach projects for abused women and children in the neighbourhood. “Our family is about people,” she says. “That’s mostly our life, touching and transforming lives because it brings us joy.”
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Living a life of service isn’t always easy, though. It’s no secret the police service is severely understaffed and under-resourced, but Catherine does whatever it takes to get the job done – even if it means using her own transport, time or money.
She’s driven by the people she serves.
“The most important people in a case are the victims – it’s about them closing this chapter and seeing justice served.”
For police officers to do their jobs well, Catherine says they need the community’s trust. She hopes Mapunya’s case has helped restore South Africans’ faith in the justice system. “We still have dignity and integrity at the South African Police Service,” she says.
“We are still here, we do not want to fail you.”
EXTRA SOURCES: DAILYMAVERICK.CO.ZA, NEWS24.COM, TIMESLIVE.CO.ZA, SAPS.GOV.ZA