Naledi, Soweto: 'I saw a boot, and then I saw a foot with the other boot … "
Johannesburg - It was a Sunday morning when Tshepang Matuludi first made the gruesome discovery.
Having just attended a resident’s meeting with his grandmother, he had been tasked that day with cutting the long, overgrown grass along the railway tracks near an open field in Naledi, Soweto.
“I saw a boot, and then I saw a foot with the other boot … and then I saw jeans and the woman’s panties around her ankles,” the soft-spoken Matuludi, 21, said.
“There were large rocks from the train track covering her from her head all the way down to her waist.”
He uses the words “gruesome” and “cruel” frequently when describing the scene.
While he is clearly traumatised, he believes he was meant to discover the body.
“Earlier one of the elders had asked me to move to the other side but I decided to stay in this section and finish it first before moving on. I believe our ancestors may have connected somehow and led me to her.”
The body he had just found is that of Lerato Moloi, 27 - one of four women who was found murdered in or near Naledi in just over a week. It is in this township that fear and paranoia befriend every woman.
Discarded like trash, the women had all either been shot, bludgeoned or set alight.
It began several days earlier with the discovery of Popi Qwabe, 24, who was shot and left for dead. While she was discovered alive near Naledi High School on Friday, May 12, Soweto West Cluster Commander Major General Fred Kekana said she eventually succumbed to her injuries and died. She had been shot in the upper body.
Less than 24 hours later, her close friend 28-year-old Bongeka Phungula was discovered in Tladi, a neighbouring township. She had also been shot in the upper body and police suspect that she had been raped.
Both Qwabe and Phungula were originally from Mayville, Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. Little is known about the two women but it is believed they had moved to Johannesburg to pursue their modelling and acting careers. They were living together in Zola, Soweto less than 2km from where their respective bodies were found.
The following day, on Saturday, May 13, a third woman was discovered on a dumping site in Mofolo - some 7km from Naledi. The woman, who is yet to be identified, had been burnt beyond recognition. Kekana said no one had come forward to claim her. Moloi was the fourth body, which was found on the third consecutive day, May 14.
“I’m glad we found her earlier rather than later,” Matuludi said.
“I feel that I helped somehow. They hit her with those rocks and hid her, probably thinking she would not be found for some time.”
He said he no longer felt safe walking alone late at night in the area, referring to the trail of death that seemed to have become the trend in Naledi over the past few days.
He said the memory of Moloi’s body still haunted him every night before he went to sleep, but a tough upbringing had prepared him for this.
“These things happen everywhere. I am better, some people discover burnt bodies, but talking about it helps,” he said.
A case of murder and rape was opened and two men have since been arrested for Moloi’s murder.
During their brief first appearance at the Protea Magistrate’s Court last week, one of the men confessed, telling Magistrate Herman Badenhorst that he knew that what he and his accomplice had done was bad.
It is believed that Moloi had been drinking with the men at a nearby tavern the night before and that the trio was seen leaving together. However, some members of the community said they had heard that an argument broke out between them over a R20.
A small group of neighbours and friends have gathered outside Moloi’s home a few days after her death. The group has decided to march to the police station to call for the officers to do more to protect women and children in the community.
They will soon be joined by members of the LGBTi community, the ANC Women’s league and Social Development MEC Nandi Mayathula-Khoza.
When News24 arrives, Moloi’s mother and some relatives are about to leave. They are on their way to perform some traditional rituals at the place where Moloi drew her last breath.
Moloi’s mother, Ntombizodwa, small in frame, is already in the back seat of the car, hidden from view.
One man in the car is holding a blue plastic bag with what-looks-like a new plant.
Moloi’s father Themba Khumalo has opted not to go with them. The pain on his face is visible. He recounts how he was told by a neighbour that a woman’s body was discovered in the bushes and that it might be his daughter.
As neighbours, family members, politicians and government officials come in and out, Khumalo says each time he steps out for a breather and to have a cigarette, hearing the sound of the gate open makes him think he may see his daughter walking in and greeting him, saying, “He! Umile la madala, mina ngisa vaya (Old man, you’re still standing here. I’m heading out for a bit)”.
He said he wanted justice for his daughter.
“The cops need to do their jobs and stop giving these people bail. These are not the kind of people you should let back out,” Khumalo says.
When he was asked to go to the scene to check whether he recognised the woman, he says he immediately recognised his daughter’s jacket, jeans and boots.
“What those boys did broke my heart, it really broke my heart, but there’s nothing I can do. It's God's will. I just wish our government could tighten the law and deal with these people because our children are no longer safe.”
Sitting on the two-seater couch in their modest four-roomed home, Khumalo describes his daughter, who was affectionately known as Tambai, as a free spirited person, who loved being around people and loved to have a good time.
“Even if she didn’t know you, she would greet you and walk down the street singing to herself.”
“She moved like a boy, dressed like one and she only spoke in tsotsi taal,” Khumalo said, saying everyone had accepted his daughter’s homosexuality.
Moloi’s friend, Portia Mokolobate, described Moloi as a forgiving person with a peaceful nature.
“If we have a fight today, tomorrow she would be the bigger person and move on from it. She never harboured any negative feelings towards anyone,” she said.
They had been friends since 2003 when they met on the soccer field and had planned to go for trials together for Banyana Banyana national women’s soccer team. News of her death had left her shaken and scared.
Mokolobate, a lesbian, said she had been raped by a group of unknown men after a night out, near Jabulani police station and missed her trials. She did not open a case because she did not know who her attackers were, but says she had told Moloi about her experience.
Moloi told her that the perpetrators would not go unpunished and that their day of reckoning would eventually come.
But for the women who spend their days and nights in Naledi, the news of the recent deaths has only intensified their fear. So far, Moloi’s case is the only one which has led to any successful arrests.
For Rebecca Keagile, 18, the place where Moloi’s body was found is all too familiar.
She walks the route across the railway line every day on her way to and from school.
Keagile says sometimes, if she isn’t lucky enough to find a group of other pupils to walk with her, she has her brother accompany her.
“Naledi is no longer safe. Sometimes my brother accompanies me; he walks me all the way to the school gate.
“Those people [those responsible for the respective murders] must be found, so that we can feel safe again. Until then, we’ll have to stay in groups. There’s no way they can take us all if we’re travelling as a group, so walking with others is the only way one can feel safe,” she says.
Another woman who grew up in Naledi and who asked not to be identified, said she was pregnant with her second child and that the latest spate of attacks on women and children had left her constantly fearful and paranoid despite the fact that she lived a few streets away from the Naledi police station.
“You are even scared of leaving the house and going to the shops. You start thinking about what might happen to you while you are out there in the streets, you don’t feel safe,” the 36-year-old said.
“You feel as if your children should stay in the yard where you can always keep your eye on them. When they go play with other children in the street, you have that fear that it is no longer safe to do that.”
She said she would feel safer if police patrolled the streets and were more visible instead of only reacting to a crime after it had already occurred.
Mother of three and grandmother of eight, Nthabiseng Makhale, 60, said parents in Naledi needed to come together and pray for their children.
“If we can all get together and have a day of prayer, every mother, every parent, every grandmother, come together and ask for protection from our Father, God.
“Life on earth is no longer good, our safety is no longer guaranteed. How can you kill and then on top of that you set someone alight as if they are a piece of paper, or hit someone with rocks like they are a snake or some kind of animal?
“These people are cowards and they need prayers… honestly, because the people who are doing these things are living in the darkness of the devil. When someone is crying, it sounds like laughter to them,” she said.