Durban - Candice Bowman flashes a bright smile as she sits in a Pavilion restaurant. Her brightly coloured dress sets her apart as she sits upright in the booth, cradling a coffee mug in her hands.
With her carefree demeanour, one would struggle to imagine that she was sexually abused almost daily over the course of nine years by her stepfather, Larry du Plessis Zwiegelaar.
Zwiegelaar, now 53, was sentenced in the high court in Scottburgh this week to 15 years in prison, 22 years after abusing his stepdaughters.
The sisters, united and sure of themselves, broke their long-kept silence in May 2010.
Bowman recounts her childhood and tells how she dreaded being alone with Zwiegelaar, being angry with her mother, and finding out that her sister was also a victim.
“For most of my childhood I felt like a zombie. I was living my life but I didn’t really feel like I was there. I was crippled by deep secrets because of the constant abuse that I was unable to share with anyone. No one knew what I was battling with every single day.”
She would only find out later that her sister Jackie, who was nine at the time, was also being abused.
“The abuse started when I was seven years old. He would come for us at night after having started a routine of tickling our backs when he put us to bed. My mother thought it was sweet of him and she was thrilled that we had a father figure. It was in that time that he would force himself on us. I lived with… dread, knowing that we would be put to bed and he would come for us,” Bowman added.
Having seen her mother financially crippled by her divorce from her biological father, Bowman was reluctant to disturb the illusion of a happy home and remained in stoic silence.
“I didn’t want to disrupt another relationship in which she was happy. I had no idea that my sister was being sexually abused as well, so I felt really isolated.
“At the time Larry told me that he had done things to her, but he would stay away from her if I let him carry on with me. I understand now that Larry was emotionally abusing us as well. There was nothing more important to me than my family and that was a way that he manipulated me. He used my own family and my fear of upsetting the balance of a ‘happy home’ to keep me quiet and co-operative,” she said.
Bowman cried as she described Zwiegelaar as a master of deception, who engineered time alone with her and her sister.
“The way I saw him was as someone who was masked. No one knew who he really was except me. Everybody loved the man that he was pretending to be. He used his charm to lure and manipulate.
“When I got home from school, Larry was always there. I know now that he engineered his working hours to have time alone with us.”
Bowman said that at high school she had confided in a counsellor.
“During the case she denied I ever spoke to her and she never made notes or had documentation from our sessions.
“I remember vividly what she said at the time: if my mother didn’t believe me, the police would have to take us both away. She dissuaded me from coming out with the truth.
“The thought of my whole family being torn apart stopped me from coming forward, (and) I decided to take it for the team.”
She said that she was 15 years old the first time she found out that her older sister had also been a constant object of Zwiegelaar’s twisted lust.
“This whole time my sister was also being abused by Larry, but I knew nothing of it. She made a comment in passing about Larry and I knew exactly what she meant by it. That’s when I knew she was in the same situation. On that day I moved out and went to live with my father. I didn’t speak to my mom after that for more than three years,” Bowman said.
She is only now able to deal with the long-harboured resentment against her mother. “I wanted her to know what was happening to me without me telling her, and I realise now that that was unrealistic. I just wanted her to save me,” she said.
Bowman’s mother and Zwiegelaar divorced shortly after she moved out.
Her two brothers lived with Zwiegelaar, who later married a childminder in England.
“When my mother and Larry got divorced, she kept in touch with him because of the boys – they were living with him because he had a stable income.
“In 2010 I overheard my mother saying that Larry had found a new woman and they were going to get married. I found out that he had married this woman in England, but had then come back to South Africa briefly to sort out his visa.
“We thought about coming forward, maybe because he was back in the country it was the right time. I thought if he went back to the UK we’d never be able to catch him.”
She sent a blunt message to his wife on Facebook, laying bare his misdeeds.
“I saw on her profile that she had a daughter. We ended up speaking through Facebook for more than three days, with her asking me detailed questions about Larry that only I would know.
“Eventually I got a message back saying that she believed me and that she was divorcing Larry. Then I thought she and heR daughter would be safe. I think that because we came forward, we saved other little girls from being tormented,” Bowman said.
She says that throughout the entire ordeal, her only concern was her brothers.
“The healing process started when his trial ended. During this whole process we have tried to shield my brothers. Protecting them has been our only concern.”
Speaking from her Cape Town home, Jackie Toms told of how her childhood had been stolen by her stepfather.
“Honestly, I didn’t have a childhood. Looking back on it now I realised that I just shut everything out to try to cope, and that is something that I still do to this day. I focused on my family and on school, I did everything to appear as normal as I could. I was so cut off from everything that I had convinced myself that nothing was wrong, I had forced myself to be happy, or at least appear to be,” she added.
She said that Zwiegelaar’s sentencing had closed a chapter of their lives.
“I am very relieved now. We still have a long way to go. Now we can start healing.
“To be honest, this has shaped me. I like to think that everything happens for a reason and as strange as it sounds, I wouldn’t change anything,” Toms said.