‘He is in prison now, but my life has been messed up’
After Mathapelo* was raped, she found it hard to walk out of her front gate.
“I felt like they were mistaking me for the rapist, yet I was the victim. I could feel people’s eyes piercing through my back as I walked through the village.
“I could not take the pain of seeing people talk behind my back and point at meor even laugh at me after I walked past.
“Teachers and learners addressed me differently, and I felt I did not belong there even after trying very hard, thinking it will soon be over and people will accept me, and perhaps support me through my pain. But I was wrong.”
When the police told the media about her rape, they got one crucial detail wrong. They said she was five years old.
She was 16. She dropped out of school before the end of Grade 8.
Now Mathapelo is 19. She’s pregnant, which she doesn’t want to talk about, and lives with her grandmother Elizabeth*.
Herrapist, Masilo Phillip Maenetja, was sentenced in March to life in prison. Mathapelo knows that people expect her to move on, but she can’t.
She was orphaned when she was very young and lives with Elizabeth in a crumbling four-room home in a village in the Letsitele Valley outside Tzaneen.
Mathapelo’s head is bowed, her face almost hidden beneath a green cap.
“I feel like an outcast in my own community. I feel like I have wronged the community by not letting it go and by reporting my rape to the police,” sh esays. Her ordeal is lost on her neighbours. The young men at a nearby roadside vegetable stall say they would never commit rape themselves. “Some of these girls tempt men. These girls are also asking for it,” says one. Another says that women are “often raped because they stay at taverns until late and they are vulnerable when drunk”.
Mathapelo had not been in a tavern. It was about 6pm on a Sunday in September 2011 and she was walking home.
“I was only metres away from my gate when I noticed a man lying on the ground. I thought he was one of those men who would sleep in the streets when drunk, but he grabbed me by my leg as I was walking past. He sprung to his feet, drew a knife, strangled me and said: ‘I have been after you for a while now.’
“He slapped me across the face, warning me not to scream and then dragged me to the back of our house, where he raped me for the first time.”
Then he dragged her to a nearby house on the opposite end of the village, “where I was raped the entire night”.
She reported her abduction and rape the next day. Maenetja was arrested, but was freed on bail for some time and continued to harass her.
“I also quit school because my school is situated in the part of the village where he lives and I often bumped into him. He once threatened to kill me if I continued passing through his neighbourhood.” Does she regret reporting him? “Some girls today are afraid to report for fear of persecution by their own families and community. I could not do that. It could have been too much for me and would have affected me even more emotionally had I not reported the crime and sought justice.
“Just like I have prayed, he is in prison now, where he belongs, but my life has been messed up.”
Charlotte Thukethane, the detective constable who investigated Mathapelo’s case, says rape is rife in the area, but many cases go unreported.
“In some cases, [a suspect] lives in the same neighbourhood as the victim and she will think: ‘What would happen if the suspect is not convicted?’
“It is, however, important to report a rape case so that the least you can get would be medical tests for various things, including diseases, as well as the other important thing, which is counselling.” Thukethane takes her work seriously. “I owe it to the victim to get justice on their behalf ... I feel good every time a conviction is secured and a [rapist] is jailed.”
Mathapelo always wanted to be a police officer. Now she is more determined.
“I always wanted to become a police officer after completing my matric. I am hoping that one day I will be able to face the world bravely, go back to school, become a police officer and arrest [every single] rapist out there.”