Prosecutors say he put 36-year-old Sibongiseni Gabada’s corpse in a bag and covered it with garbage.
Gabada was missing for two weeks before her body was found. Every day people would walk past, until finally the smell of decomposing remains became stronger than the stench of the trash piled on top.
“When the people asked what is going on there. He said, ‘No, it is rubbish, I am going to throw it away.’ That is the kind of person he was — an animal,” says Gabada’s grandmother, Mavis Gabada.
She gingerly moves forward to stare at the spot, sobbing. “Why was my granddaughter killed like a dog?” she asks.
Mavis, who is now 78, raised Sibongiseni. Even after her granddaughter had moved into her own place in the Cape Flats, Mavis says Sibongiseni would always take the time to check in.
When she came to visit, Sibongiseni would play with the family pets — a ginger cat and an energetic puppy — give advice to her younger sister Brenda, and spend time with her kids. Sometimes she baked cakes to sell in the neighborhood.
“She would come and check in and she would make the children laugh, she was very fond of those kids. If we didn’t see her for two days, we would begin to worry,” says Mavis.
In mid-May, when the days stretched on and Sibongiseni still didn’t come to the house, Brenda tried to trace her sister’s steps with Sibongiseni’s friends. They posted messages on social media and her friends talked of a new boyfriend.
“She always said that when you go out, you must be safe and if you go out you must tell anyone at home,” says Brenda.
When Sibongiseni’s body was found next to the suspected killer’s shack, her boyfriend was quickly arrested by the police.
But just days later, the senior public prosecutor dropped the case, leaving the suspect free to walk away.
“She was of the view that there was a lack of evidence,” says Bonnie Currie-Gamwo, Deputy Director of Prosecutions in the Western Cape, who is in charge of all murder cases in the region.
“I saw the outcry about the withdrawal on social media. I contacted the prosecutor and told her to send me the docket,” she says.
After Currie-Gamwo reviewed the evidence, the suspect was rearrested, placed in custody, and charged with murder. He is yet to submit a plea in the case.
“In any system, there will always be cracks,” says Currie-Gamwo.
But in South Africa, gender rights activists say those cracks are more like chasms.
“I don’t think they are serious about it. If they could deal with gender-based violence the exact same way they are dealing with Covid-19, we would be fine,” says Mandisa Monakali, the founder of Ilitha Labanthu, an NGO that helps support victims of gender-based violence.
Ilitha Labanthu was instrumental in publicizing Sibongiseni’s case and putting pressure on the prosecuting authorities. But it is just one of many cases.
In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa gave an address to the nation in June about what he called a war against women in South Africa.
“Violence is being unleashed on the women and children of our country with a brutality that defies any form of comprehension,” he said. “The women of our country are being raped — they are being killed by men.”
Since the country’s strict lockdown was lifted, scores of high-profile cases of gender-based violence against South Africa’s women and children have come to light.
In the last week alone, Monakali’s NGO has taken on more than a dozen new suspected cases.
She says that — gender aside — there is no “typical” profile to the victims they support with counselling and legal assistance. They have recently helped a two-year-old rape victim, and a victim in her late 70s.
Monakali says that leaving an abusive relationship 30 years ago inspired her to get involved in activism.
But she says the situation has gotten worse, not better, in those three decades. She says the war on South Africa’s women has lasted generations.
“I am worried about my grandchildren — because people now normalize violence against women and femicide, because this thing is happening every day,” she says.
A younger generation of activists is now joining the fight. At a protest in front of South Africa’s parliament in Cape Town, several hundred women and a handful of men, all dressed in black, shout their demands through a loudhailer.
One after another, young women step up and tells their stories of assault, rape and murder.
“Every day when I open my Facebook it is like a funeral page,” says Ayesha AbouZeid, one of the protest organizers. “I think that all we have received in years and years and years is empty promises again and again and again and I think we are just tired of it now. Something has to change.”
South Africa’s parliament recently held another debate on gender-based violence, and new legislation may be introduced.
But activists like Mandisa Monakali point out that South Africa already has stringent legislation in place — including laws specific to gender-based violence. They say change will only come if concrete action happens at the level of police and prosecutors.
Monakali has come with the Gabada family to where neighbors found Sibongiseni’s body. She says despite the police combing the scene weeks ago, the suspect’s relatives found her purse inside his shack last week.
Monakali holds out Sibongiseni’s ID card. “They don’t know what they are doing. They don’t do their jobs. They investigators who are supposed to investigate, they don’t do their jobs,” she says.
Local and regional police authorities didn’t respond to repeated request for comment on the case.
The Gabada family saw the suspect in Sibongiseni’s case released and then rearrested. Now, they want the alleged murderer punished.
They say it could bring them justice, but won’t bring her back — and it won’t erase the image of her stuffed into a bag, discarded under a pile of trash.
And above all, it won’t make their fear go away.
“We are not safe. If we go out, we don’t know who will follow us. Who will do something like that? Maybe what happened to my sister can happen to me. Maybe it can happen to my children. We go outside with fear,” says Brenda Gabada, tears streaming into her face mask.