Thembela’s Story

Thembela is 27-years-old and lives in Khayelitsha. In 2014, she was raped and blinded during a sexual assault. This is some of her story:

“One night, an unknown man attacked me. I was trying to get away, but he overpowered. While I was fighting that man, a guy I knew from the neighbourhood searched my pockets and took my phone.  I saw his face. I tried to fight back but the unknown man pressed harder and harder on my throat and I collapsed. They must have thought I was dead.

I woke up slowly because I was still struggling to breathe. My neck was full of scratches and my eyes were hanging, they had popped out of my head. My pants were down to my ankles and I had no shoes on. I couldn’t see anything, but I remembered that I had been under the window when I was attacked. I touched the wall and felt around until I felt the window. I knocked slowly, because I didn’t have any power. My ex-boyfriend came out, took me around the back and went inside to call my brother Siphe. Siphe started crying when he saw me and took me inside the house. I was sitting on a chair, shaking, and feeling cold. They gave me a blanket and my brother said the ambulance was coming. I don’t know how long it took, but the ambulance did come.

The people at the hospital were shocked. They said they hadn’t seen anything like this before, with someone’s eyes hanging out of their head. They lifted my eyes up and put bandages around my head. Two days later, I went for an operation to cut my eyes out. I asked the nurse if I would see again. He was quiet, touched my back, and then said he was sorry, but I would not be able to see again. That made me feel so negative. I wanted to commit suicide.

I was in hospital for nine days. My mother and grandmother came to fetch me at the hospital. My grandmother asked if I wanted to go home or stay with her. At first I wanted to stay with my grandmother, but then I realised the toilet was outside and I was blind. I didn’t want to struggle so I said no, and came back home. I also knew that I was in trouble because of the case. Others in the community wanted to kill me. They wanted the case to be finished.

Once I came home, I attended a place called the League of the Friends of the Blind. They train you to be independent. We also learned braille there, but I had to leave after a while because they could not pay for transport. I like the training college I’m at now. It’s a skills development college for blind and partially-sighted people. We learn skills like public speaking.

The thing I want is to be a motivational speaker. I don’t want to sit with my story. I want to help other people who are in trouble. There’s a lot of people who are in trouble, people who can’t accept their difficulties. I want to advise them that it’s not the end of the world and life can go on.”    

At the end of 2015, Thembela’s brother, Siphe, was stoned to death. There was an inquest but nobody was ever arrested or convicted for the murder. The family believes this is related to the assault, as her brother was there on the night it happened and may have been seen as a witness. In the years following Thembela’s attack, the family has experienced great tension in their community, as two of the attackers were from the neighbouhood. It split the community and some people blamed Thembela for what happened that night.

Thembela has not found legal justice, either. She didn’t want to be blamed for the case going nowhere, so she reported the assault and has attended all of her court dates. However, her case has been postponed for more than three years without an explanation. Thembela now lives with a lot of fear and feels unsafe. She sometimes forgets things because of her trauma, struggles to be independent, and is always at home because she cannot move freely.

Thembela would like her story to serve as an advocacy case for the importance of justice after sexual- and gender-based violence. One of the men involved in the attack is currently serving two life sentences and another is serving an eight-year sentence, but both were convicted for unrelated crimes. None of the three men involved in the attack have been arrested or convicted in relation to Thembela’s case. It is deeply unfair that no action has been taken for more than three years. This sends a terrible message to other women who experience violence: that the criminal justice system does not care and there is no incentive to report these attacks. We want Thembela to find justice, and set an example to strengthen and encourage other women to report crimes against them.

NOTE: Thank you to Mandla Majola of the Movement for Change and Social Justice (MCSJ) for bringing Thembela’s story to Acacia Global’s attention. We will be supporting MCSJ’s work to find justice for Thembela and prevent future acts of sexual- and gender-based violence.