‘As I Sit and Weep for Karabo, I Wish I’d Spo­ken up Sooner’

Ac­tress So­nia Mbele opens up about her own abuse

Cosmopolitan (South Africa) - - CONTENTS -

‘I’ ll never for­get the first time I met Karabo. She had this aura about her that was im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore. She’d walked in late to a weekly prayer meet­ing I was a part of in Rivo­nia, Jo’burg, three-anda-half years ago. Wor­ship had al­ready started but there was some­thing about her that dis­tracted me: her spirit was some­how big­ger; she was spe­cial. She sat be­hind me at that meet­ing, and I kept turn­ing around just to take a look. She was beau­ti­ful and el­e­gant, wear­ing a doek and a f lowy dress.

‘At ev­ery meet­ing, peo­ple are in­vited to tes­tify so we can pray for one an­other – and she got up that evening and spoke. She shared how she was seek­ing a higher power, and that she felt she’d come to the right place. As she shared, I got a sense of her sad­ness: she talked about how she felt mis­un­der­stood by some peo­ple. At the end of the meet­ing, I went up to her and gave her a hug. I wanted her to know that she’d found a home here, a safe place. That’s what our prayer meet­ing was all about: a chance to en­cour­age one an­other.

‘Af­ter just a few weeks of meet­ings, Karabo and I be­came fast friends. She was easy to get along with, em­brac­ing and wel­com­ing. We ex­changed num­bers and she asked me to be her men­tor: she was hop­ing to get into the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try. She dreamt of hav­ing her own talk show one day – of be­ing a South African Tyra Banks.

‘As time went on, we both got busy. Last year, film­ing for a project took up ev­ery ounce of my time, so I couldn’t get to our prayer meet­ings for nine months. Even then, Karabo and I talked and met up for cof­fee as of­ten as pos­si­ble – of­ten once a month.

‘We shared a lot with each other but Karabo never ex­plic­itly re­ferred to be­ing in an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship. That said, I be­lieve she sensed we were kin­dred spir­its. As we chat­ted, I slowly shared with her that I was in an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship for nine years – some­thing I’d never talked about to any­one other than my mother, my son and close friends be­fore. But when­ever this came up in con­ver­sa­tion, I sensed that she was un­com­fort­able. And when she did talk about abuse, it was al­ways in hy­po­thet­i­cals – never in terms of “I”.

‘One thing I did no­tice was that, in the last year or so, Karabo’s bright, vi­brant spirit be­gan to di­min­ish. She wasn’t as open as she’d been when we first met, and she be­gan to lack a sense of cer­tainty. She didn’t speak like the queen she was. It was a slight change that I couldn’t pin­point.

‘It was when Karabo’s fam­ily asked me to speak at her me­mo­rial that I re­alised it was time for me to speak up. I phoned my mom in a panic. “What am I go­ing to say?” I asked her. “Per­haps it’s time you speak about your own abuse,” my mother replied. “Per­haps it’s Karabo say­ing I’m gone now but you re­main, with a voice.” I knew that my mother was right.

‘Sadly, I couldn’t speak at Karabo’s me­mo­rial be­cause my pro­duc­tion sched­ule for a new TV show couldn’t be moved, al­though I begged them to try. But my prom­ise to speak up re­mains – and that’s why I’m speak­ing now.

‘Un­til now, I’ve never spo­ken about this pub­licly. I promised my­self never to talk about it to pro­tect my son. But he’s 16 now, and an amaz­ing young man who is lov­ing and con­sid­er­ate and re­spect­ful to women. He knows what hap­pened – and now it’s time to talk so that Karabo’s story is never re­peated again.

‘I was 17 when I met my then-boyfriend, and still in high school. I had loads of friends at school but af­ter we started dat­ing he elim­i­nated them one by one. He had an is­sue with each of them and, be­fore I re­alised what he was do­ing, I had no friends left. Abusers iso­late you so you be­come de­pen­dent on them, some­thing I didn’t see at the time.

‘At first, the abuse was psy­cho­log­i­cal and fi­nan­cial. For ex­am­ple, he’d drive me to au­di­tions – but when I started to get cast in com­mer­cials, he re­fused to help me any more. That’s typ­i­cal of abu­sive peo­ple: they dan­gle a car­rot in front of you, but the mo­ment you start to achieve and make some­thing of your­self – the mo­ment they risk los­ing con­trol over you – they take that car­rot away and re­move your power. So when I was 20, I saved up enough money from my TV and com­mer­cial work to buy my own car, so I could get my­self to au­di­tions.

‘Then I got a gig on Soul City in 2000 and re­ally be­gan to make a name for my­self. It was at this point that the abuse be­came phys­i­cal.

‘The phys­i­cal abuse started with one in­ci­dent I’ll never for­get. We were at an in­dus­try party – he was with me – and I bumped into an old friend as we were leav­ing. It was a guy friend I’d grown up with; I hadn’t seen him in ages. He was an SABC pre­sen­ter, and I was ex­cited to see him. As we left, I gave him a hug.

‘As soon as we walked out the door, my part­ner started yelling at me. “Why did you do that? Why did you dis­re­spect me like that? When you’re with me, you don’t give other men hugs! It’s a sign of dis­re­spect.” I didn’t un­der­stand why he was so up­set but I also didn’t want to ag­gra­vate the sit­u­a­tion, so I apol­o­gised im­me­di­ately.

‘We got in the car and, as my part­ner drove, he threw a punch at me with his left fist. I was taken com­pletely off guard. He was shout­ing things like, “I need to teach you a les­son! You never do that!” Again, I tried to rea­son with him, but I was ter­ri­fied. “I thought we spoke about it,” I of­fered. “And I apol­o­gised.” But it wasn’t enough. As we drove along the high­way, he leaned over to open my door – while we were go­ing at full speed – and tried to kick me out. Thank God I was wear­ing my seat belt.

‘Ahead, I saw a bridge ap­proach­ing. “Do you see that bridge?” he threat­ened. “I’m go­ing to ram into it. I’d rather we both die than have you dis­re­spect me like that ever again.” With hor­ror, I watched the speedome­ter nee­dle ris­ing: 120, 140, 160, 180km/ h. I re­mem­ber crying and beg­ging him not to do it – not to slam us into the bridge. He slowed down, but I re­ally be­lieved at that point that I was about to die.

‘An­other time, we were at a fes­ti­val to­gether when a ran­dom guy tried to flirt with me. I qui­etly told him that I wasn’t in­ter­ested but I was too late: my part­ner had wit­nessed the whole thing. He started to beat me up there and then – in front of ev­ery­one. I guess peo­ple didn’t get in­volved be­cause they didn’t know what to do. And it didn’t mat­ter to my part­ner that I hadn’t flirted back: I was al­ways the tar­get; it was al­ways my fault.

‘The first time I learnt to use con­cealer, when I was 20, it was to cover up my bruises. I told noone about what was go­ing on. I’ve asked my­self of­ten why I didn’t leave af­ter that first in­ci­dent in the car, but this was the only man I knew. I didn’t know any bet­ter. Be­sides, I did love him.

‘It was only when I fell preg­nant with my son when I was 25 that I fi­nally re­alised I needed to leave. I didn’t want my son to ex­pe­ri­ence this kind of vi­o­lence. I didn’t want his fa­ther fig­ure to be an abu­sive man.

‘Mo­ti­vated by my preg­nancy, I con­fided in my mother. She strug­gled to un­der­stand the sit­u­a­tion: my part­ner had only ever been the pic­ture of kind­ness and re­spect to her, kneel­ing be­fore her and tak­ing off his hat when­ever he en­tered her home. But she sup­ported me.

‘I fi­nally left him when I was five months preg­nant, in 2001. I’d come home late one night from shoot­ing, and I was in the bath when he ar­rived home with an­other woman. That night, while he was with this other woman, I packed my bags and went to my mom’s. At 3am the fol­low­ing morn­ing, he phoned me, an­gry, ask­ing where I was. His re­sponse to my tear­ful re­ply that I would no longer tol­er­ate his be­hav­iour? “Oh wow, you’re crying. Clearly you’re a much bet­ter ac­tress than I thought.” Once again, he was twist­ing things into an in­sult to me and try­ing to make it my fault. This time, with my un­born baby giv­ing me strength, I didn’t let him get un­der my skin.

‘Sev­eral days later, he called again and begged me to come back. But hav­ing done the hard­est thing – ac­tu­ally walk­ing out – I knew I could never go back. It wasn’t just my life at stake any more; it was my child’s, too.

‘Since then, my life has changed im­mea­sur­ably for the bet­ter. My son is 16 and I’m so proud of the young man he’s be­come. My ca­reer is go­ing from strength to strength, and I will never again let a man di­min­ish my worth. Never again will I let any­one ex­tin­guish the light that’s within me. Tak­ing my power back has made me stronger.

‘But as I sit and weep for Karabo, I wish I had spo­ken up sooner. I wish, Karabo, that you had walked away and never gone back. Be­cause abu­sive peo­ple try to lure you back, some way or an­other. They ex­ert an emo­tional and phys­i­cal con­trol that is so hard to break. I wish I could have helped you to leave, Karabo, be­cause I be­lieve that if you had left, you would still be here to­day.

‘Three years af­ter I left my part­ner, I bumped into an ac­quain­tance who told me about how he’d abused an­other woman. She told me how this poor woman had vomited in his car, and how he’d beaten her up at a petrol sta­tion and forced her to clean the car, there and then, at 2am in the morn­ing. My heart broke for this woman, but it also re­minded me: I was not at fault, the prob­lem was him. I was not his trig­ger, he was. Whether it was me or an­other woman, his be­hav­iour was his own re­spon­si­bil­ity.

‘The same is true of Karabo’s death. My dear Karabo: it was not your fault, it was the fault of your abuser. For your sake, we must not stay silent. It’s not ac­cept­able for any­one to sit back and watch as a woman is beaten up at a fes­ti­val, or forced to clean up her vomit at a petrol sta­tion. It’s not ac­cept­able for us to turn a blind eye if we feel one of our sis­ters is be­ing abused. To­gether, Karabo, we will make sure your death is not for­got­ten, and that other beau­ti­ful, strong women do not suf­fer that same fate as you.’

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