He was one of the most important people in her life and the man she loved most in the world – but many of the memories she had of him have been wiped out by shock and grief.
“I don’t remember much about my dad,” Zaynab Petersen says. “Post-traumatic stress does that. Maybe the memories will return someday.”
Yet some have remained – and they’ve haunted her in the 16 years since her father, singer, composer and musical director Taliep Petersen, was murdered.
She’ll never forget seeing her beloved father lying in a pool of blood on the floor of the family home in Athlone, Cape Town, in December 2006.
Zaynab, just seven years old and the youngest of Taliep’s six children, had a strange feeling something was going to happen to her dad that night but he tried to reassure her.
“I was feeling unsettled,” she says, “but he told me that I should go to bed and he’d see me in the morning.”
Those were his last words to her. “I was his princess,” she says.
Zaynab not only lost her father that night – she also had her mother, Najwa Petersen, ripped from her life when Najwa was sentenced to 28 years for orchestrating her husband’s murder.
Najwa has served 15 years behind bars and is now eligible to be considered for parole, which is something else Zaynab is having to come to grips with.
The young woman has been trying to get on with her life. Now 23, she’s a first-year student at Varsity College in Cape Town, studying to become a teacher.
But it’s been a rough road, she tells YOU in a candid exclusive interview. She’s on medication for anxiety and depression and to help her sleep, and earlier this year she spent two weeks in a psychiatric clinic after she started cutting herself.
She shows us the scars on her arms but says therapy is helping. Her psychologist gave her the greenlight to speak out about her experiences, she adds. “She told me I’m ready to start talking now.”
Since her father’s murder, Zaynab has lived with her half-brother, Sulaiman Effendi (34), and his father, Jimmy Effendi, Najwa’s second husband. She longed for a female role model, she says.
“I’ve always been surrounded by men. My friends always say they can see I grew up in a house full of men because I make a really good hamburger.
“But I don’t know what to do when it comes to women stuff. When I got my first period, I thought I’d been hurt.”
She isn’t sure how she feels about her mother’s possible release, Zaynab says. There are unanswered questions she wants to ask Najwa the next time they talk, when there won’t be bars between them.
But for now, she dreams of far simpler conversations with her mother. “All I want to do with my mom is to lie on the bed with her and just chat.
Zaynab doesn’t want to discuss the motive behind Taliep’s murder or her mom’s role in it.
“I’m sick of people talking about what happened as if they were in that house that evening,” she says. “Some people say my mom was the one who pulled the trigger. Were they there?”
She hadn’t been asleep for long that terrible night when she was woken by her mother’s hysterical weeping. “We’ve been robbed and they’ve got your dad,” Najwa told her youngest daughter. The words hit Zaynab like a blow to the belly. “All I asked was, ‘What do you mean, they have my dad?’”
She got out of bed and made her way to the lounge, which had been locked. As she touched the doorknob to find her father, shots rang out.
A short while later, two of her uncles kicked open the front door and the police arrived soon afterwards.
“I kept asking where my dad was, but they told me to stay in my bedroom,” she recalls. But when she realised all the attention was focused on a very emotional Najwa, Zaynab slipped out of her room and saw an image of her dead father that still haunts her to this day.
Taliep's murder was one of South Africa’s most high-profile killings. His death shocked the country – he was one of SA’s most popular and successful entertainers, a smiling, funny man who worked with the best theatre talent in the land.
Najwa was found to have been driven by jealousy after Taliep planned to reunite with his first wife. She was found guilty of hiring two hitmen to kill her husband, an act described as “callous” by the judge during her 2008 trial.
The state had called for her to be imprisoned for life but she was given 28 years and sent to prison near Worcester.
When Zaynab was still at school, she used to visit her mother in jail and says she witnessed Najwa getting older by the week.
Their relationship has had its complications. “I had my differences with my mom,” Zaynab says. “There were times when things weren’t good at all between us.
“I allowed people to get into my head and plant negative thoughts in my mind, but those things are over now. We’ve worked on our relationship.”
Since she started studying she hasn’t been to visit as often, despite the fact Najwa was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town three years ago.
“My life started getting busier,” Zaynab explains. “I’m a student, so I don’t have all the time in the world anymore. This year has already been very hard for me and I don’t even think I’m going to pass. It was too hard.”
Though she has mixed feelings about her mom’s possible release, she believes Najwa has paid for her sins.
“I feel people must forgive her. If God can forgive us, who are we not to? God has already forgiven my mom.”
Her greatest fear is how Najwa will be received by the rest of the family, especially Taliep’s four children from his first marriage, Jawaahier, A’eesha, Fatiema and Ashur.
“I’m not looking forward to the adjustment at all,” Zaynab admits.
For now, she’s trying to focus on her own healing and mental health. “That’s what therapy is helping me with. I used to put others first at great cost to myself but now that I’m putting me first, I’m doing much better.”
She’s unsure what the future holds.
“As far as teaching is concerned, I like the idea that I get to help children build a good foundation and that I have the ability to make a difference in their lives.
“I’d also really like to follow in my dad’s footsteps by doing community work. Just to be able to make a difference.”