‘As I Sit and Weep for Karabo, I Wish I’d Spoken up Sooner’
Actress Sonia Mbele opens up about her own abuse
‘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.’