Two storeys below the traffic sounds are intermittent. Morning “rush hour” is over. The sun shines on my circular conference table, the one that can comfortably seat five, but at six elbow room is getting a little restricted. Sibusiso had phoned earlier to say he wants to see me but wouldn't tell me what it is about, so my interest is piqued.
“Eish,” he says, “sorry about the fire Steve.”
“Don’t worry” I reply. The fire had happened four days ago. The under-storey had been burnt off and all the saplings destroyed, but the mature trees were, as far as I could see a couple of days ago when I was there were okay. “Look, the cottage and water tank were fine, and the only damage I could see is the supply pipe to the ramp pump that is burnt through.”
“Yes I know. Sorry about that.” He apologises again. “I was trying to look after the house.”
“No, no it’s fine,” I continue to reassure him, knowing that we were just lucky that the day of the fire was calm and that had there been any wind it could have been whipped up into a veritable firestorm. I know that he would have done his utmost to protect the property.
Why is he here? This is mundane stuff.
I wait patiently as Sibusisio looks down at the table. Dust motes slowly spin and weave in the dry and still air and the only background noise is the occasional car passing through the traffic lights on the corner below.
“Eish,” he says. “I have a problem.”
“I thought so,” I say.
“It’s my Daughter,” he says, and proceeds to tell me his story.
I listen to the story without interruption. He finishes and I sit there and feel nothing and wonder why. I look out of the window into the strong winter sun picking out the various greens and textures of the trees and grass in Coronation Park, and the low mountains that separate the town from the Northern valleys. Gradually the dull traffic sounds intrude and as my eyes refocus on Sibusiso’s bowed and slowly shaking head the dust motes dance and the low sun gleams on the polished table top. I realize that I am feeling something after all.
I am feeling numbness.
At a loss as to what further advice I can give to Sibusiso I phone an attorney colleague for immediate advice on procedure. I email another colleague, an ex-high court judge who has necessarily a very broad grasp of the law and explain Sibusiso’s plight and ask who might be able to give some pro bono advice. I get a rapid response expressing shock and sympathy and the name of a colleague who runs a law clinic out of the University.
In the mean time I have given Sibusiso E2,000 against expenses and asked him to keep in touch with me.
There seems to be confused advice from the Police in this affair. Sibusiso is being told that there are instructions to cover the affair up. This he thinks may stem from the fact that the child was reported missing on Saturday by her Grandfather, but he was told to come back on Monday to open a missing persons docket. There is therefore a sense of embarrassment on the part of the police about their inefficiency.
The first advice that I had sought had confirmed that an unnatural death would naturally lead to a post mortem being carried out. There is no requirement for consent from close relatives to be specifically given in such circumstances. The law requires that a post mortem be carried out. So why was Sibusiso being asked for consent for a post mortem to be carried out? Following my attorney’s advice I suggest to Sibusiso that a post mortem must be carried out.
I recount this awful tale to a couple of colleagues during a working lunch - an unsettling subject to discuss over open sandwiches. We observe the paradox of the expression of freedom and democracy on the one hand and the now not so funny warning to “look after your children and old folk” on the other. Elections are after all upon us and canvassing is in full swing and it is hotly contested. The country is alight with accusations of dirty dealing on the part of one, then another, then another of the candidates vying for community votes. The one colleague is from the same community in which the child lived and died. He is adamant that this is not an incident of drowning, and he implies that within the community it is common cause that this is an unnatural death.
We are sitting again at my conference table. A different day, but the same bitter wintery sun.
Sibusiso has returned with two scraps of paper. The one is the receipt for the coffin, and the other is the death certificate. It is obvious that no post mortem has been carried out.
The death certificate gives the age of the child correctly as being 8 years, and the cause of death as “death by drowning”. The certificate is signed by the Police Pathologist. “Death by drowning” at least accords with the newspaper article on Tuesday which also stresses that the police have not found evidence of foul play. There is no mention of any autopsy on the certificate. Death by Drowning is the official story.
“No,” Sibusiso shakes is head. He is vehement. “No. They are wrong. How can you drown in winter? She was in her school uniform. She was accosted.” Indeed accidental drowning during the dry season is very rare. Rivers are low and crossings from home to school, or church are easy and familiar.
“Steve, her hands were missing here,” and extends his own palm and makes cut gestures with his other hand across the upper end of his figures. “She was missing here and here and here,” he says indicating both ears and his lower lip.
What do you say to someone whose daughter has been the victim of a suspected ritual murder?
What can you say?
Death by Drowning is the official story.