He was an ordinary-looking civil servant. She was an ordinary 19 year-old woman, running an ordinary errand on what seemed like an ordinary day.
On Saturday 24th August 2019, Uyinene Mrwetyana, a student at the University of Cape Town, set off from her university residence to the Clareinch Post Office, five minutes away, to collect some clothes she had ordered online.
At the Post Office counter she was assisted by a 42-year-old employee named Luyanda Botha. When Mrwetyana wanted to pay, he told her the credit card machine wasn’t working because the electricity was out. She was asked to return later. They exchanged numbers so that Botha could let her know when to come back.
When the student returned at 2pm that same day, Botha was the only worker left in the building. Uyinene Mrwetyana would never leave the Post Office.
Her failure to return home that afternoon caused some concern among her friends. Such an absence was out of character. In the interim, they made social plans for when she turned up again, in the way students do.
Today, Sinothile Norman has a video of Nene, as she was known to friends, pinned to the top of her Twitter profile. “Uyinene, I am beyond grateful to have had such a beautiful presence like yours in my life these past few years. You will always be a part of me. You walk with me and I know that you are watching over me. My guardian angel. I will love you forever my friend… forever,” the message reads.
The accompanying video is a mash-up of cheerful memories. In it, Mrwetyana is laughing with friends, approaching the camera with an animated walk in the middle of a grocery store aisle, and strolling on the plaza at the famous Jammie Steps at the University of Cape Town (UCT). She’s happy. She’s got a twinkle in her eye and a smile as broad as a bright summer day. In the background, Beyoncé sings dreamily on ‘Otherside’: “Another life… If it all ends and it’s over, if the sky falls fire, best believe me, you will see me, on the other side”.
Mrwetyana’s burned body was found in a field in Lingelethu West, a section of Khayelitsha township roughly 30km from the Clareinch Post Office, early on the morning of 26 August. Two days earlier Luyanda Botha had raped her twice, beat her with a Post Office stapler until she died from a head injury and hid her in the office overnight. He returned the next day to douse her body in accelerant and set her alight.
Four months later, the weight of Mrwetyana’s murder hangs over the Clareinch Post Office building in the middle-class Cape Town suburb of Claremont. More eerie still is the fact that the local police station is just two doors down. Ribbons droop off the building’s perimeter rails: reminders of the odes to Mrwetyana that covered the Post Office in the days after the crime was made public.
The exterior brick wall is collaged with pamphlets that shout the same message over and over again: “Boys (will not) be boys, they will be held accountable for their f**king actions!”
This is where I meet Charlotte. She’s staring at the wall, her head covered in a scarf to protect her from the wind, her face weathered with concern. “I sleep outside the station. Everyone keeps asking me if I was around the day that boy murdered that girl but I wasn’t,” she says, lowering her eyes and shaking her head. “I wasn’t here.”
Inside the Post Office it is business as usual. People pop in and out to fetch packages, buy stamps and deliver their letters. Once again, there is only one person working: this time, a woman.
When I ask to see the branch manager, I am met with caution and scepticism. “She’s not working today,” I’m told. “I don’t know when she’s working. She won’t be back today. I don’t know if she will be in tomorrow. You will have to try another time but I don’t know when.”
At the very moment I was in the Post Office, the accused – Botha – was appearing at the nearby Wynberg Magistrates Court, where the judge had allowed the media to identify him for the first time. His head was obscured by a grey hoodie. Observers in the public gallery shouted: “Show your face!”
Mrwetyana’s was the face that launched a thousand protests, so to speak. In the wake of her death, surrounded by bunches of carnations and printed photos of their friend, crowds of UCT students gathered in front of Jammie steps to vent their feelings, each statement starting with what has now become a mantra: I am Uyinene.
It’s a mantra for South Africans who want to harness their fear and anger about the safety of women in public places, in society in general. In a video clip filmed on the steps Azande Mkize, a commerce student, says: “We’re tired of being told where to walk, we’re tired of being told what to wear and we’re tired of carrying around pepper spray… we want to live.”
The reality is that what happened to Mrwetyana could happen to anyone, and anywhere, but her death sparked a reaction never before seen in post-apartheid South Africa. Cell phone footage supplied to news outlets showed a crowd of Khayelitsha residents singing struggle songs while what is believe to be Botha’s house burns bright orange in the background after allegedly been set alight as an act of revenge by angry citizens.
Of course, the ‘rainbow nation’ maintains a close relationship with high crime rates, gender based violence, death and murder; but in country where so many cases lie dormant, the question arises why some almost literally catch fire.
Lisa Vetten, a gender activist and researcher, says that crimes inflicted on women who leave a visual memory tend to awaken a particular kind of horror, and Mrwetyana left a record of her life on social media. “The people who we take up publicly are often [those] who we identify with as a society, so many people themselves in her,” Vetten says. But she believes there are other factors that make Mrwetyana so relatable. “She was doing something ordinary and every day. It was alarming. Young people are representers of our future and they have little opportunity to live their life, so it’s more shocking when they die.”
South Africa’s rape epidemic is no secret, but many of the details are uncertain. Official police statistics for the 2017-18 state that for every 100 000 people in the country 71 rape cases are reported – but it is well known that a lack of research and limited numbers of rape survivors reporting cases to the police mean these figures are unreliable.
Despite this situation, global trends like the #MeToo movement do tend to find traction here. When the world calls for change, South African woman who would otherwise be silent feel more supported and secure. But the rape and murder of Mrwetyana saw #MeToo in South Africa evolve into something even more pointed and forceful: a campaign tagged as #AmINext.
The slogan speaks to the very real fears of South African women that they could join the long list of women raped and murdered for doing something as mundane as visiting the Post Office.
On 5 September, masses of women gathered outside the gates of Cape Town’s parliament carrying placards bearing messages reading “I will not die with my legs open” and “Justice for Uyinene”. They called for urgent governmental action on violence against women, and demanded to be allowed to deliver a memorandum to President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Lucinda Evans, the founder of a Cape Flats organisation called Philisa Abafazi Bethu – isiXhosa for “Heal our women” – was one of the speakers that day. “#AmINext gave rise to what we all have been feeling as South African women for a long time,” she says. “When we came to Parliament on September 5th it was the first time since the 1956 Women’s March [opposing apartheid laws] that so many of us gathered together to say enough is enough.”
Evans’ opening words on that day were quoted throughout the country: “You will not moer [beat] me today”.
The words had a double meaning, as a warning to violent men, and a statement of anger about the way female protesters had been treated in Cape Town on the previous day. “The president was in the Cape Town International Convention Centre and students wanted to address him. They were met with force, they were fired on with water canons and stun grenades,” Evans says.
For years, she has been campaigning for properly equipped rooms at police stations for victims of sexual violence. “In some of the stations there are no volunteers in the room and there are no training facilities available for support staff. Victim support rooms are a [legal requirement] and every single one should have trained volunteers who protect victims and can give referrals.” She describes a recent visit to the Athlone police station where she met a rape victim who had sat on a bench for 16 hours waiting for help.
In Mrwetyana’s case, the notion of a victim-support room seems redundant. But Evans points out that it’s still the police’s responsibility to provide trauma support. Bottom line: “There needs to be a front line plan in place and nobody is taking responsibility. I am demanding that this be a priority.”
This is not the first such calls have been made. It feels as if South Africa is trapped in a cycle of violence and reaction; of anger, promises and reversion to the status quo ante. Once the public’s flame of outrage burns to ember, little seems to change, and Vetten suggests this is because societies tend to confuse outrage with change.
“Condemnation doesn’t translate into doing something. We never take the time to understand what’s going on, to find enlightenment, to analyse”, she says.
Even within government people admit much more needs to be done. Jennifer Smout, who sits on the Commission for Gender Equality, says if gender-based violence is to be curtailed the state needs to be intervening robustly and often. “Government needs a mechanism for implementing its own recommendations and recommendations made to it,” she says. “Otherwise this is simply wasting money and time.”
Shortly after Mrwetyana’s death, the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) called for drastic measures to put an end to the violence. At a media briefing at the University of Cape Town, ANCWL’s secretary general, Meokgo Matuba, said the league wanted to look into legalising chemical castration as a punishment.
Vetten asks if it would not be better to treat the roots of this violence – including structural unemployment and poverty – rather than merely the symptoms. She also believes that involving South African men in the discussion is essential. “How do we, as a society, engage with them in a way that doesn’t excuse their gendered privilege but also understands their social circumstances? It’s complex, and a long-term engagement.”
To argue for more understanding about why violent men do what they do is to put yourself in a minority in contemporary South Africa. Many say they are beyond caring about individual motives, and public patience for such difficult questions is especially short in Mrwetyana’s case.
There is a simple reason for the depth of anger of Mrwetyana’s murder that has little to do with gender. After Botha’s arrest it emerged that he had an existing criminal record for armed robbery at the time of his employment.
It has since been revealed that the government’s human resources database does not store criminal records, which is likely what permitted Botha to secure employment at the Post Office despite his past.
His prosecution has been quick by South African standards. The National Prosecuting Authority was ready to go to trial within three months of the murder, on 15 November, and the defence was too.
On that day Botha pled guilty to four counts of rape, murder and defeating the ends of justice by covering up forensic evidence. On that day he was handed three life sentences, to run concurrently but without the possibility of parole for quarter of a century. It has since emerged that he made a confession to police on the day of his arrest. He is also understood to have pointed out the places where the crimes took place.
Friends have said that Mrwetyana was a socially conscious individual who played by the rules South African society inflicted on her as a woman. She knew not to walk around alone, and to protect herself. She knew the world was a dangerous and threatening place.
At her funeral, which was broadcast on national television, her brother described her as brave and funny. With tears in his eyes, he said he knew she must have fought her attacker.
Her mother’s words, pained with remorse, offered an indictment of South African life: “I’m sorry that of all the places I warned you about, the Post Office wasn’t one of them.”
All photographs Getty Images