Baby Tshepang town still confronts devils
By Michael Schmidt
A dust devil gyrates across the stoep of the bottle-store in Louisvale Road, south of Upington in the sun-blistered Northern Cape, obliterating the drunks and their inchoate pain for an instant.
This is a place where the dreams of its 6 000 dirt-poor residents come to die, asphyxiated slowly in the 38-degree haze. This is a place known to the civilised world only for the infamous rape, on October 27, 2001, of the nine-month-old girl nicknamed Baby Tshepang.
In a tragedy of errors, six men, including Tshepang's 66-year-old grandfather, were rounded up by the police and charged with the gang rape of the baby, an outrage that made world headlines. But they were released when DNA tests proved their innocence.
Another man, David "Pana" Potse, who had briefly dated Tshepang's mother the previous year, confessed and was jailed for life. But in the stew of heatwave and hatred stirred up in Louisvale Road the six men narrowly avoided lynch mobs who wanted to castrate them.
The one to suffer most was John Radebe, an abattoir worker in whose cinderblock house on Hanepoot Lane - the one with the heart-shaped garden - the rape occurred. He lost his job and his baby daughter Melody, who died mysteriously in foster care.
This week Tshepang's mother (now 19) spoke of a public debate in the small settlement that telescoped all conversations into "Baby Tshepang voor and Baby Tshepang agter", her child's ordeal turned into an icon of all that is wrong with life in Louisvale Road. But, she felt, her own relationship with her child had been forgotten.
The last time I interviewed her was in March 2002, the week Potse went on trial, when tempers were still running high and the police had to intervene in arguments that broke out on the street over the case.
The teen mother, a promising high-school student before pregnancy ruined her academic plans, was subdued and dressed in a sombre brown pinafore. But this week she was her old self again, bright and chatty in a matching floral summer outfit, speaking passionately and intelligently about her rights as a mother and love for her child.
For the past two years, Tshepang, now recovered from reconstructive plastic surgery at Cape Town's Red Cross Children's Hospital, has been living in foster care with a pastor, his wife and toddler son at Pofadder, a small town to the west in Bushmanland.
The two-year period of foster care ordered by the Upington Children's Court expired last Sunday, but Tshepang's mother said she had not received a summons to go back to court to review the matter and she feared Tshepang would spend her fourth birthday - the Day of Goodwill next week - far from home.
Welfare, she said, was concerned that, if Tshepang were returned to her, she would live with her mother and grandparents in their corrugated iron shack.
"What is wrong with a zinc house? She was born in a zinc house. We can't help that we are too poor to afford a stone house. Besides, we have bought proper beds and cupboards."
Tshepang's grandfather said he was still owed R75 000 of the R100 000 settlement agreed by the state in June for his wrongful arrest.
"If they pay it to me, I'll buy a proper house in the town" which should satisfy welfare as a suitable home for Tshepang, he said.
Tshepang's mother described her child as "very cute", wanting to carry a handbag like her mother - but said it was clear by the way she sometimes mimicked sexual behaviour when at play that she had been psychologically damaged.
What concerned her most, though, was the foster family's recent move from Pofadder to Springbok, Namaqualand, a change of address she was not notified of.
"My question is: 'Whose child is that?' Why didn't they inform me that they were moving? I phoned but couldn't get hold of them. I last saw my baby in April."
She complained that she must "walk to Upington, which is about four-and-a-half kilometres, to visit the social worker, but she drives past our house in her government car without stopping to speak to me".
Her immediate plan is to complete her schooling. But she knows from hard experience that will be no easy prospect.
"I washed floors and did odd jobs here and there to pay my school fees. When I fell pregnant I had still not paid off my school uniforms, so I had to sell them."
Today, things are just as tough. She earns a pitiful R100 a month working in a hide-curing factory on the outskirts of Upington.
"There's nothing in the house. I hope we can get a bit of money together so we can have a bit of meat for Christmas. But the foster parents get R440 a month to look after my child. Why can't they pay me that money?"
Pastor Johannes Stuurman, of the United Congregational Church, said the Tshepang case had raised awareness of child abuse and family violence in Louisvale Road.
Today, 24 community volunteers trained by the church and the department of social services and population development monitor all the settlement's children under a programme termed Eye On The Child. It seems to have worked: no further cases of child abuse have been reported since Tshepang.
"There is a change in lifestyles and attitudes," Stuurman said, "but people here still live in a vicious cycle of poverty which is the root cause of these social ills."