Photo: Thembekile Molaudzi in front of Kgosi Mampuru 11 prison. (Carolyn Raphaely)

“I’m innocent” is a refrain prison warders hear with such monotonous regularity, they mostly don’t listen.

Zonderwater warder Levi Maphakane proved the exception to the rule. He not only listened to repeated protestations of innocence by inmate Thembekile Molaudzi – sentenced to life imprisonment on four counts including murder and robbery more than a decade ago – he contacted the Wits Justice Project (WJP) for help.

Last week, the Constitutional Court reversed its own ruling regarding Molaudzi and ordered his immediate release. CAROLYN RAPHAELY reports…

Photo: Thembekile Molaudzi in front of Kgosi Mampuru 11 prison. (Carolyn Raphaely)
Thembekile Molaudzi in front of Kgosi Mampuru 11 prison. Photo by Carolyn Raphaely.

“No one has felt the agony and anguish I’ve been through, I’ve endured horrors almost beyond human imagination,” Molaudzi wrote in an impassioned 2012 letter to the Judicial Conduct Committee.

“This (my conviction) is a shocking failure of our legal system and no person in this country is prepared to face that reality. Many nights I lay awake pondering what I can do to get assistance. I did not commit crime, crime is committed against me. Should I just fold my hands and rot in jail for a crime I did not commit?”

His plea fell on deaf ears. Were it not for warder Levi Maphakane, Molaudzi, now 37, would still be languishing behind bars.

“We deliberated too much about his case and I conducted my own informal investigation,” Maphakane recalls. “I had access to his files, family and friends and to his co-accused who all told me he’d been wrongfully convicted. I’ve worked as a warder for 21 years. Thembekile is the only inmate whose story I’ve ever believed.”

Last Friday, with 11 lost years behind him and an uncertain future before him, Molaudzi strode out of Kgosi Mampuru 11 prison carrying only the files of correspondence he had accumulated while trying to prove his innocence, a few clothes and a lot of psychological baggage.

The former Pretoria taxi driver’s struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds – including torture, solitary confinement and an eight-year battle to obtain his trial transcripts – had finally come to an end.

[quote_center]”We were made to squat up and down in front of females with our genitals showing…”[/quote_center]

Molaudzi’s nightmare began in 2002 when Mothutlung policeman, Dingaan Makuna, was murdered during a botched hijacking. Eight men were rounded-up and arrested – including Molaudzi and four unknown others. During two identity parades, Makuna’s daughter, who witnessed her father’s murder, fingered four suspects. Molaudzi, an easily identifiable two-metre giant of a man with an imposing presence, was not one of them.

The author of this article Carolyn Raphaely - "my first meeting with Thembekile as a free man."
The author of this article Carolyn Raphaely – “my first meeting with Thembekile as a free man.”

The only evidence implicating Molaudzi was a recanted confession by a co-accused whom a full bench of the North West (NW) High Court later described as a “reckless liar”.

During a bungled investigation characterised by shoddy detective work, no gun residue was found, there were no witnesses, no independent corroboration, no fingerprints and no tangible evidence linking him to the crime. All the accused pleaded not guilty but all were convicted and sentenced to life by Justice Monica Leeuw, now NW Judge President.

Immediately after their conviction, the men were admitted to Pretoria C Max where Molaudzi says they were “made to strip naked and tortured by warders for no reason. We were made to squat up and down in front of females with our genitals showing for everyone to see. They shocked us with shock-shields, just for fun. And they klapped me because they said I was a gangster”.

Molaudzi complained to then-minister of correctional services, Nosviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, the parliamentary portfolio committee on correctional services and the head of prison. To no avail.

“The same thing happened when we were sent to Kokstad later that year – we were tortured again by warders using shock-shields and I was put in solitary confinement for four years.”

[quote_center]”I was put in solitary confinement for four years”[/quote_center]

When Molaudzi set about trying to access his trial transcripts required to appeal his case, the process proved almost as torturous.

First the Mafikeng Legal Aid advocate who represented him during his trial claimed his office burnt down and he’d lost all his records. A second Mafikeng Legal Aid advocate also failed to deliver.

Though indigent inmates are legally entitled to their records at State expense, after a three-year wait Molaudzi’s family and the families of two of his co-accused raised R18,000 to pay private attorneys to find the missing transcripts.

Another two years passed before the records materialised. Unfortunately, more than half of the 1,023-page trial record – including the most crucial evidence – was missing.

Molaudzi began bombarding anyone he could think of – the minister of justice and constitutional development, the Public Protector, the SA Human Rights Commission, the Judicial Service Commission, the Judicial Conduct Committee and the parliamentary portfolio committee on correctional services – with requests for help.

Again, his efforts proved futile.

With only Grade 10 education under his belt, Molaudzi spent his time studying the Constitution, the Criminal Procedure Act and advising other inmates of their rights.

[quote_center]“I am a patriotic SA citizen serving life-sentence for the crime I did not commit…” [/quote_center]

By May 2012, Molaudzi was depressed, angry and frustrated. Not even the prison psychologist could help him. “I don’t think she believed I could have been wrongfully convicted.”

His long battle to obtain his records and appeal his case was getting the better of him and he sent an impassioned letter to the Judicial Conduct Committee accusing Justice Leeuw of “unethical misconduct”.

“I am a patriotic SA citizen serving life-sentence for the crime I did not commit,” Molaudzi wrote. “I am unable to appeal or review because essential parts of the records that include illegalities, irregularities and partiality has been deliberately omitted. … With all the information before the court, it is impossible to understand how was the verdict reached (sic). Serving life sentence for the crime I did not commit is a terrible ordeal.”

Armed with only prayers, faith and the courage of his convictions, Molaudzi soldiered on, bolstered by an overwhelming need to prove his innocence and be reunited with his wife, Paulina, and young son, Mark. “When I went to prison my son was three months, now he’s 12. Sometimes I’d put my head on my hands and just cry.”

When Molaudzi discovered his docket had disappeared from the Mothutlung police station, he complained to Minister of Police Nthathi Mthethwa and the docket mysteriously re-materialised. Meantime, witnessing Molaudzi’s distress warder Maphakane took matters into his own hands and contacted the WJP.

[quote_center]“It’s an issue with serious human rights implications.” – WJP project co-ordinator, Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi.[/quote_center]

“The WJP regularly receives requests for help from inmates whose transcripts are missing,” says WJP project co-ordinator, Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi. “It’s an issue with serious human rights implications.” After numerous unsuccessful attempts to access Molaudzi’s docket and records, the WJP asked Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) to intervene.

With the help of LHR paralegal Louis van der Merwe, Molaudzi received his records in a week. Once again, substantial chunks of crucial evidence were missing.

“The pagination of the court records was incorrect and the pleadings started at the wrong page,” Van der Merwe recalls. Finally, at LHR’s behest, Justice Leeuw ordered Molaudzi’s transcripts to be re-transcribed. Three weeks later, Molaudzi was finally in a position to appeal his case – a basic Constitutional right which had taken eight long years and a monumental fight to attain.

At the end of 2012, Molaudzi, along with six of his co-accused, shuffled into the NW High Court – his legs chained together under his neat, navy jeans – optimistic about the outcome of their appeal before a full bench.

[quote_center]“When I went to prison my son was three months, now he’s 12. Sometimes I’d put my head on my hands and just cry.”[/quote_center]

After enduring what felt like an intolerable delay awaiting judgement, he fired off a frustrated letter to Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, chairperson of the Judicial Service Commission. “The reserved judgement and my continued incarceration are exacerbating my ordeal and serve to punish me for the crime I did not commit…”

When their appeal was dismissed, Molaudzi set his sights on the Supreme Court, assisted by a Legal Aid lawyer. “After this application was dismissed without reason, Legal Aid said they couldn’t assist me any further.”

Unbowed, Molaudzi decided to go it alone. He roped in an ex-prosecutor inmate to help him lodge a Constitutional Court appeal. According to this judgment, no Constitutional issues were raised, the appeal challenged the factual findings of the court, and his case had “no reasonable prospects of success”.

By now, Molaudzi believed he’d exhausted his legal options. A victim of an egregious miscarriage of justice, he could only pray that a subsequent Constitutional Court application by two of his co-accused – Boswell Mhlongo and Alfred Nkosi, who had also long protested their wrongful convictions – would open up further legal possibilities for him.

His prayers were answered when the Court appointed Advocate Donrich Jordaan to represent the men who had been assisted with their application by a “prison lawyer” – an inmate studying law behind bars.

Molaudzi’s life might have taken a very different turn had it not been for Jordaan’s intervention. Nigel Carpenter, a senior state advocate committed to the pursuit of justice, proved an added bonus. Both Carpenter and Jordaan told the Court that the only evidence implicating Mhlongo and Nkosi were extra-curial out-of-court statements by a co-accused, which both advocates maintained were inadmissible and unconstitutional.

When Carpenter unexpectedly told the court that an unnamed “Accused Number Five” had been similarly convicted and deserved the same legal fate, Molaudzi’s life changed course in a heartbeat.

Though Molaudzi was not party to his co-accused’s appeal, the Court permitted him to piggy-back on the coat-tails of their application and Jordaan agreed to represent him free of charge. Two weeks later, the Court overturned Mhlongo and Nkosi’s conviction and sentence and ordered their immediate release.

Unfortunately for Molaudzi, this didn’t mean an immediate jail-free pass. When it emerged that he was “Accused Number Five”, Molaudzi found himself unwittingly mired in complicated legal arguments regarding the doctrine of res judicata – in common parlance, the principle that on the same set of facts only one bite of the legal cherry is permitted.

Since the benighted inmates’ application had already been heard and dismissed by the Constitutional Court in 2013, the Court needed to resolve whether it had the jurisdiction to hear the matter again. This took three long months.

Last week’s landmark judgment which overturned Molaudzi’s sentence and conviction stated that his case “demonstrated exceptional circumstances that cry out for flexibility on the part of the Court” and that the “interests of justice” required the relaxation of the legal principle.

[quote_center]”I’m not really angry, I’m just traumatised.”[/quote_center]

“I’m not coping,” Molaudzi told the WJP while awaiting judgment a few weeks before his release. “I have terrible mood swings. I’ve been through a terrible ordeal and I’m still going through a terrible ordeal. I’m not really angry, I’m just traumatised. It’ll take me a very long time to heal, I’m not normal and I can’t think normally at the moment. I need a psychologist…”

When Molaudzi’s “warrant of liberation” was finally issued – not a moment too soon – load-shedding in NW meant processing was delayed and he spent his first night as a free man in prison.

“I don’t know whether I have feelings,” he said standing outside the prison gates the following day.

“All I know is I’ve missed my family and I’ve missed my son’s childhood. I wasn’t there for his first day of school and all the other best important days. From the time he could talk, every time he visited me he’d ask when I was coming home.

“I kept saying soon but I could never keep my promise. My son thinks I’m a liar…”

This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick and is republished here with kind permission of Carolyn Raphaely.

Please click here to learn more about the Wits Justice Project. 

CAROLYN RAPHAELY is a member of the Wits Justice Project (WJP) which investigates miscarriages of justice related to the criminal justice system. The WJP is located in the University of the Witwatersrand’s journalism department.