Phumlani Phungwayo's friends in Soweto show up with their bicycles to honour the dead teenager. PHOTO: Thembelihle Qwabe/African News Agency (ANA)

JOHANNESBURG - A boy’s recent death after a dispute over his bicycle has left his grandmother adamant he did not kill himself and angry that police have not arrested the man she suspects of being responsible.

Suicide is fairly common among South African teens, particularly those stuck in poor townships with little prospects of getting jobs after school in a country with unemployment of more than 27% of the labour force.

But 18-year-old Phumlani Phungwayo’s grandmother refuses to believe he took his own life after she found him hanging from an electric cord in their backyard in Mndeni  in the sprawling Johannesburg township of Soweto.

"This is still shocking and confusing to me,” says 76-year-old Mary Phungwayo, who raised Phumlani after his mother was murdered by a boyfriend.

Phungwayo recounts how she went to tackle a man who had confiscated Phumlani’s bicycle over a R45 debt. Her grandson was clearly afraid of the man and did not want her to confront him.

“I went and fetched it for him even though he did not want me to go there because he seemed scared for me and kept telling me to find someone strong  who could fetch it for him,” the grief stricken woman says.

“I forcefully went even though he was reluctant of me going. I was not scared of the person he had told me about.”

“He said my grandchild owed him R45. I had R20 and a few coins in my pocket and so I gave him that and told him to come to my house the next morning  for the rest.”

One Friday after the incident, Phungwayo was cleaning the yard first thing in the morning  when she came upon the body of her grandson, hanging from a tree with arms dangling.

Her horrified screams brought a neighbour running, who found the gate to the property unlocked even though Phungwayo is certain she had locked it the previous night.

Suspicious, Phungwayo refused to let anyone touch the body until the police arrived and the her grandson was taken away mortuary for a post mortem.

Some of her neighbours also suspect foul play.

“When I got there the boy looked green and not pale. He looked as if he was strangled,” neighbour Dumisani Thusi said.

“It looked as if someone had killed him and made it look like suicide.

Phungwayo is furious that the man she believes killed her son is still roaming free.

 “I don't know what is happening with our justice system,” she fumes. “They are not even investigating the guy who had taken my grandchild’s bicycle.”

Adding to her suspicions, after Phumlani’s death she sent someone to fetch the man, on the pretext that she wanted to give him the rest of the money owed to him, but he declined.

“He said he couldn’t come because he is a Sangoma (traditional healer) and does not go into houses where there is a dead body.”

“How did he know that there was already a dead body in the yard?” wonders  Phungwayo, who feels the police are not taking her suspicions seriously.

 “I have buried my grandchild. I just want justice so I can get peace because it is difficult to accept that a boy full of life would just die like this.”

Police say the case is very complex and the family have not provided a viable suspect.

“All they did was to come to the police station with images of the boy hanging,” said Warrant Officer Hadebe from Naledi police station who is handling the case.

“We are trying our best to investigate the case because it was an unnatural death (but) with no suspect in place the case remains an inquest.”

The incident has left residents of Mndeni worried about the safety of their children.

Those who do believe Phumlani  killed himself feel the community let him down by not having measures in place to help parents and guardians deal with depressed teenagers. They note that most parents are often too focused on putting food on the table to pick up any emotional signals.

Now Phungwayo is left to imagine what future her grandson might have had, had he lived.

“My grandchild was a talented young boy. He joined a club for bicycles and they used to compete with other townships,” she laments.

“After he died other kids that compete on these bikes came to my house and that is when I realised my boy could have been successful in life with this bike thing.”

“Even his mother would have been proud of him.”

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African News Agency (ANA)