Two months later and the trial had still not started. As each month passed, the case was postponed yet again as the police were still collecting evidence. And for two months now Pholisa was still having nightmares. Since the first night back in her house without Masi she had woken in the early hours in terror, sometimes crying. The nightmares varied but they were all terrible and they haunted her during the day. Sometimes it was Lelethu screaming, sometimes Masi, and sometimes she dreamed of her gogo.
There was no one with whom to share her night terrors. Lelethu had enough of her own. School became the safest place, a place where Pholisa’s mind could get some rest and she could focus on her work. She knew that Lelethu was also still suffering. She was not her old, bouncy self. Not yet. But she was going to counselling and she had a space to express her terrors. She had given up the drama club.
“I’m not ready yet,” she had told Pholisa. “I don’t know if I ever will be again.”
“You will,” Pholisa had assured her. But she didn’t have the same enthusiasm for drama either. They were both facing their demons. They both needed time to heal. They both needed to have the case over and hear the judge’s verdict and see Matchsticks and his skollies locked away for a long time. Only then would they feel safe again.
After Lelethu had laid charges, Matchsticks and his boys were arrested. The girls had thought that it would be an open-and-shut case; the gang would all be put behind bars and the judge would have the keys thrown away. But it didn’t work like that.
At the beginning of the case, Pholisa had listened intently when the prosecutor read out the long list of charges against Matchsticks and his crew. She was waiting for the sentence but it didn’t come.
Instead the judge asked if Matchsticks had a lawyer.
“Who cares if he has a lawyer?” someone shouted in the courtroom. “Just put him away! He’s a danger to our community.”
Matchsticks sneered at the judge. Even in court he thought he was king.
“Why would I need some moegoe government lawyer when I can get the best in the business?” he had said.
Because Masixole had turned himself in, he was given a lawyer to argue the case on his behalf. They had entered a plea bargain for him and he turned state witness. He got seven years. The trial was over quickly for him. But not for the others.
“We need time to consult with witnesses, Your Honour,” Matchsticks’s lawyer had said to the judge. He had used all sorts of fancy words, but still failed to convince the judge that Matchsticks should get out on bail. This, of course, meant that Matchsticks would remain in jail throughout the trial.
But, to Pholisa’s dismay, the judge had agreed to postpone the case – just as Matchsticks’s lawyer had asked. In fact, this happened several times over the next couple of months.
But today was the last day of this whole nightmare. Finally. Today was the sentencing; the day Matchsticks and the boys would get what was coming to them, and Lelethu and Pholisa would be there in the court.
Pholisa woke up. She was still surprised every day when she opened her eyes that she wasn’t in the shack, or even at home in the Eastern Cape, but here in Lelethu’s aunt’s house. She had been staying with Lelethu for the last few weeks. Bontle slept with her mother, and Pholisa shared Lelethu’s bed. Lelethu’s aunt had agreed that Pholisa could stay with her until she finished school at least. Then she would go back to relatives in the Eastern Cape, or try to go to college with accommodation. “You can’t live on your own,” Bontle’s mother had said. “Your mother was my homegirl too, you know.”
“After this, it will all be over, chommie,” Pholisa said to Lelethu. But they both knew that it wouldn’t really be over for either of them for a while. They held each other’s hands under the covers. It was a chilly morning. Winter was in the air.
Sometimes Pholisa felt terribly lonely. She wished someone would tell her that everything would be all right. She needed Gogo by her side to tell her that she was doing a good thing. She wanted Masi to tell her why he had done this. She wanted it all to be over.
The two girls lay a little longer under the blankets, until Bontle’s mother brought them tea and told them it was time to get ready to go to court. Lelethu’s mother had come from the Eastern Cape to support her daughter, and they would collect her on the way. She would have come earlier but she couldn’t get time off work, but she would be here for the sentencing. Pholisa, however, didn’t have anyone. Even when this was over she would still be alone, except for relatives in the Eastern Cape, and she didn’t want to go back there yet.
Pholisa had followed the trial from day one. The whole community was there and the courtroom was filled to the brim. Everybody wanted to find out the fate of the notorious Matchsticks and his skollies.
There was some talk that Matchsticks would get away with his crimes – especially when things started going wrong. The trial was meant to be short – a month at the most, said the lawyers and detectives – but then it dragged on. And on and on.
The first hitch was when important documents went missing. So the case was postponed and an investigation was launched. And then somewhere, somehow, the documents magically appeared again. It was no surprise that Matchsticks tried all the tricks in the book to get off.
But that was also when the community started taking note and pulling together. They had been terrorised enough by him and now they saw that he was just a man – just another criminal with a mean streak. They convinced most of his ex-girlfriends to testify against him regarding the abuse. One girl even cried so much she couldn’t continue with her testimony. Two guys, who had received a brutal beating from the gang members, had been so badly injured that one had lost an eye and the other had been left with a scar on his face.
Thandie had also testified. It had come up in court that she had been pregnant, and had lost her baby after the rape. Her medical records showed, too, that she could never have children because of what these men did to her.
And then word got out that Masixole was having a rough time in prison. Matchsticks was trying to shake him down so that he wouldn’t testify against him. But Masi didn’t budge. Instead, the authorities had even kept him separate so that Matchsticks and his guys couldn’t get to him.
But now the sentencing was finally about to begin.
“All rise!” the bailiff announced as the judge entered the courtroom.
They all stood and waited for the judge to take his seat. The case was then called and the judge started speaking.
Pholisa couldn’t tell what was being said – all she wanted to hear was the judge saying: “You are sentenced to life imprisonment.” That was what they all deserved.
A gentle squeeze from Bontle’s hand brought her thoughts back to what was happening in the courtroom. They were sitting in the first row, next to Lelethu.
Matchsticks and his gang were ordered to stand.
The first three men were sentenced to 15 years each, for rape and attempted murder. Then Matchsticks was finally sentenced to 20 years.
The room went wild again with applause.
But still they went home with mixed feelings. Even though 20 years was a long time, Matchsticks hadn’t got life imprisonment. There was a lot of talking among the people, but Lelethu and Pholisa said nothing.
As the prisoners were taken away, Pholisa remembered the day when Masi had been sentenced. All she had done was to look at him. He had been crying, maybe it was remorse, maybe it was relief. Maybe some day she would hug him. She wasn’t sure when that day would come.
Tell us: What do you think about how the community united against Matchsticks? What is the danger when communities stand up to criminals outside the court?