Primary school teacher Patrick Buthelezi’s blood ran cold as the enraged man charged at him.
Patrick 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 now 50-year-old father-of-three from Durban spend more than a year behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.
Patrick was eventually acquitted of the rape charge after his alleged victim admitted she had lied and the Umlazi regional magistrate’s court found that there was no evidence linking him to any crime.
The Durban high court this month awarded him R1,6 million in damages for the 13 months he spent in jail after he sued the National Prosecuting Authority.
“Mr Buthelezi was in custody for more than a year. His career was delayed, and there was a psychological impact on him too,” his lawyer, Viren Singh, told YOU's sister magazine DRUM when he brought the case against the NPA.
Patrick was left devastated. He lost his fiancée and his freedom as he languished in jail for 13 months.
The nightmare began in 2011, when Patrick was approached by a trio of elderly people at his school.
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He was in the passenger seat of a colleague’s car, and they were about to head off to an event the school was hosting.
“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 staffroom 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 then called a lawyer. On his lawyer’s advice, he went to the Bhekithemba Police Station in Umlazi and turned himself in.
He was denied bail and suspended from his job, pending the outcome of his trial, which began in 2012.
Westville Prison became his new home as his legal costs rocketed, his career remained in limbo and his fiancée dumped him.
By the end of the year he was out of money and drowning in debt, having spent nearly R200 000 defending himself.
“Prison is a very traumatic place. Something not everyone talks about, especially the things that happen and the things that you see can never be erased from your memory.”
The conditions in prison, said Patrick, are “appalling”. He said he had to pay R600 for essentials such as a clean bed, sheets and a sponge to bathe himself.
“When you are a new inmate, you are forced to buy your safety from senior inmates with items such as cigarettes and airtime.”
He was ready to call it quits on his old life.
“I was prepared to serve whatever jail term was handed to me,” he says. Instead, the Umlazi regional court acquitted him, as DNA evidence showed he had not raped the child.
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 learnt in prison was forgiveness. What kept me going while I was locked up was meditation and prayer, I read the Bible a lot.”
He had his freedom back, but people in his community shunned him when he returned home.
“This case was all over the local newspapers when it unfolded, and when the charges were dropped, I was still left with a tarnished reputation; and mentally, I was afflicted.”
In 2013 he was diagnosed with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I was struggling to sleep, feeling anxious and suffering from depression because of everything that happened,” he shares.
“I was scared of interacting with kids because of the incident and I always feared for the worst. I was deeply wounded.”
Thankfully, he was reinstated to his teaching post at Umlazi Primary where he is now deputy principal.
“A parents’ meeting was called, they were informed of what had taken place, that I had been acquitted, and they were assured their kids were safe with me.
“I was happy to be out of prison, but I am sad that I spent more than a year in prison for nothing. This case was not about money – it’s about the pain and psychological impact on me.”
He isn’t sure if he will ever fully recover, he says. “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 hopeful that with time he will be able to put it all behind him.
“What happened to me was really painful, and when I look back at it now I did lose a lot but life has to go on.”
“I am overjoyed that the Durban high court ruled in my favour and that my name will finally be cleared publicly. Knowing that justice has prevailed has set me free.”
EXTRA SOURCES: IOL, HERALD LIVE