A warm heart in a cold courtroom
“We’re with you and your family,” she tells Anni Dewani’s mother gently.
“Thank you very much,” replies Nilam, who is from Mariestad in Sweden. She nearly smiles.
Both women are petite and have given birth to children. Nilam (64) is wealthy, Philda (65) is from the Cape Flats. Philda’s daughter is still alive.
Their eyes meet – then the moment is over. Each is pulled into the throng of people pouring out of the court.
“I felt a little bit fake saying that because I’m there for the Dewani family too, you know,” Philda tells me. “Listen, one shouldn’t judge hey. Innocent until proven guilty, that is the rule,” she says. Philda is a high court public gallery veteran. The retired catering worker has honed her legal mind attending the murder trials of, among others, Dina Rodrigues in 2007 and Najwa Petersen in 2008.
Perched on a wooden pew in the mezzanine public gallery this week, she points at state prosecutor Shireen Riley below. “Jirre, that woman is kwaai [fierce]! She sent Najwa to jail – wait until that one starts speaking!” OBSERVERS Philda Solomons and Henry Sinclair, both veterans of the public gallery, outside the Western Cape High Court this week
Philda got up at 6am to hang her laundry before catching the train to the city centre.
As much as she hates dirty washing at home, she loves the public airing of laundry in court.
Around us, the public gallery is packed. Locals armed with lunch and coffee flasks arrived early to queue for space next to smartly attired supporters of the Dewani and Hindocha families.
In the front pew, one woman is fast asleep and slumped over the railing. A police officer taps her shoulder gently; she showers him with slurred expletives. Below, Judge Jeanette Traverso looks up at the commotion sharply, and the officer retreats. The woman does not return after the lunch break.
Reflecting on her years spent watching the drama unfold from the public gallery, Philda says: “During sentencing, that’s when I feel so sad for them. Mostly, I feel so sorry for the mums. I know what it’s like to be a mother.”
Fortunately, Philda’s three children are well-behaved.
She ditched their father, even though he was the love of her life, she says. She also buried him when he died 15 years ago.
Philda takes out a small packet of biscuits wrapped in foil and offers one to me.
The chilly air-con goes off and the courtroom is filled with a fleeting sense of warmth. Here in the public gallery beats a warm heart in the otherwise echoey corridors of bureaucracy.
The next day when I arrive at the public gallery, Philda has saved me a seat.