Tshego* stands at the front door of her grandmother’s shack, smiling at her younger brother.
With a mischievous glint in his eyes, the three-year-old boy leans his head back and chuckles as he sinks his hands deeper into a bucket of wet clothes.
His eyes meet those of his seven-year-old sister, and she too bursts out laughing as she skips towards him.
“She feels safe now,” her mother Neo* said on Sunday, smiling as she watched her children play together in the yard.
“For the first time in a long time she has started playing with other children. After what happened, she would only stand at the door and watch the other children play, but now she comes out,” she said.
After seven months of living in fear, Tshego has reason to feel safe. The man who kidnapped her outside her grandmother’s shack in Tembisa on Christmas Eve last year took her to a field, raped her, took her to his room and raped the girl again, has been convicted and sent to jail for three life terms – two of which will run concurrently.
Simon Rikhotso, 27, felt the full brunt of the law on Friday when Johannesburg High Court Judge Kathy Satchwell handed down her sentence.
Rikhotso had pleaded not guilty to all the charges, saying it had not been him but a “look-alike” friend who was the perpetrator. But it was Tshego’s adamant and confident recollection of the identity of her assailant as she testified through an intermediary last week that sealed Rikhotso’s fate.
Tshego was a single witness to her rapes.
She had testified that while she was at Rikhotso’s room, another man arrived and stayed for the night. But she remained steadfast that it had been Rikhotso who was her assailant, even when, under cross-examination, it was put to her by Rikhotso’s lawyer, Jesse Penton, that she had confused the two men.
“I’m very impressed with her capacity for observation. She certainly understood questions put to her and framed intelligent answers… the girl we met this week certainly knew the difference between fact and fantasy,” the judge continued.
Judge Satchwell found that Tshego’s evidence was reasonably and possibly true. “It seems inconceivable that within minutes of being released from her kidnapper’s lair she would choose to identify the wrong person… why would a child who was described by nurse (Patricia) Sidu as ‘cool and calm’ when relating her story make up the most important part?”
Tshego’s mother took to the stand in aggravation of sentencing to explain how the rapes had affected their family. “Before the rape she was a brave little girl… afterwards, she didn’t want to play with boys. It took her four months to feel safe to visit her grandmother’s house again.”
Neo said Tshego would start undergoing counselling at the Teddy Bear Clinic on Thursday.
* Not their real names