When Nolubabalo Nobanda’s uncle told her family she had called to say she had been arrested for smuggling cocaine in Bangkok, they thought it was a practical joke and went to work.
Mthetheli Mbewu received the call from Nobanda in Grahamstown, where the family lives.
Nobanda, 23, was arrested at an airport in Bangkok on Monday after 1.5kg of cocaine was discovered hidden in her dreadlocks.
Thai customs officials searched her when they noticed powder in her hair. She told the authorities that she had planned to meet someone at a hotel in Bangkok to hand over the drugs. She was to be paid R16 000 on her return to SA.
On Wednesday, Mbewu said: “After she told me she’d been arrested, I wanted to probe further about how she landed there, but the phone was removed from her and hung up.”
He said her parents had not believed him when he told them, saying that Nobanda had been joking. However, her father, who works at the Grahamstown post office, had done an internet search of his daughter’s name and had been shocked to find pictures showing cocaine being removed from his daughter’s hair.
Her parents hadn’t even known that their daughter had a passport – let alone that she had left the country.
The family’s spokesman, advocate Ntsiki Sandi, said: “Everyone was so shocked, very shocked, when they heard the news. They can’t associate this with her.
“If her family had the money, her mother would be on a plane (to Thailand) tomorrow.”
There were plans to raise money for the trip, he added.
On the same day that Nobanda was arrested, Chinese authorities executed Durban woman Janice Linden after she was convicted of drug possession.
The SA ambassador to Thailand, Douglas Gibson, said on Wednesday he would be visiting Nobanda on Thursday when she was transferred from the police cells to the women’s prison in Bangkok.
The family gathered in Ncwane Street in Joza township, Grahamstown, on Wednesday.
They said they were hoping to learn more of Nobanda’s fate from Gibson.
Mbewu said they had been relying on media reports to stay informed about Nobanda’s whereabouts while they waited for the SA embassy to help.
He said he believed she might have been forced to smuggle the drugs.
“She does not need anything. She was fine the last two weeks. Someone is behind this,” he said.
Nobanda’s mother, Wanjiswa Ncepu, said she had not slept for days and was afraid to leave her house because people were asking questions.
“All eyes in this location are on us, and I am even afraid to walk outside,” she said.
“I am told that detainees in prisons where Nolubabalo is are not supplied with food, they have to buy. So how can I continue to eat while I do not know where my child is?”
Ncepu said she wished she could have her daughter back in the
country. “I really do not deserve this in my life. I want my life, my daughter’s life back.”
Meanwhile, family and friends continued to arrive to show their support.
Sandi said: “The family’s main concern is for her safety. We are also looking at what her chances of legal representation are and trying to see how the legal system works over there.”
He said Nobanda had returned from Johannesburg, where she was apparently studying, two weeks ago. “It was rumoured that she was going around with a girl, but we don’t know who that was.”
Sandi could not say where she was studying. In 2007 Nobanda was registered as a student at Wits University.
In Thailand, Gibson said that there were nine South Africans serving time for drug offences.
“One South African has been serving a sentence in Thailand for 16 years already… there are those who are coming out only in 2032,” Gibson said, adding that part of the embassy’s role was to act as a conduit between the families and the convicts.
The DA called on International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane to ensure that Nobanda’s human rights were protected.