A drug mule from Soweto speaks about her experience of being imprisoned in Brazil and her return home. Photo: Bhekikhaya Mabaso/African News Agency (ANA).
When convicted drug mule, Nolubabalo Nobanda returned home from serving an eight-year jail term in a Thai prison last month, South Africans were divided over her reception. Many claimed that she did not deserve the “adoration” she received.

Nobanda’s homecoming opened old wounds for Matshepo Khumalo from Orlando East, Soweto, who served almost two years in a Brazilian jail for drug trafficking.

Khumalo said she broke down when she saw Nobanda’s story, feeling relieved that she was finally with her loved ones and also sad for the stigma she would have to carry because of her mistake.

Khumalo said she quietly returned to South Africa in January 2015 after serving 23 months in Rio de Janeiro jail for drug possession. Unlike Nobanda, who knew she was smuggling cocaine stashed in her dreadlocks, Khumalo claimed she became aware of the cocaine in her luggage only when she was busted at the airport.

Her trip with a close male friend was meant to be a relaxing two-week holiday somewhere in Europe to help her clear her head after leaving a job as a personal assistant to a politician.

Instead, she learnt on their way to OR Tambo Airport that they were, in fact, flying out to Brazil on a one-way ticket. Once in the South American country, two weeks turned into two months while they were staying in a hotel in Sao Paulo without a ticket despite her longing and wanting to return home.

Eventually, the friend raised enough money for her to fly back to South Africa via Angola.

Khumalo said her friend set her up to smuggle cocaine hidden in a gift package when the time finally came for her to return home to South Africa.

“I was to travel to South Africa alone. He asked me to take a gift back to a friend at home. I didn’t suspect anything untoward because I saw him buy the Versace toiletries. He insisted I put the gift in my suitcase that would be checked in and not in my hand luggage,” said Khumalo.

“An officer at the security checkpoint in Rio flagged me. He insisted I unwrap the gift. There was a white powder which was tested and proved to be cocaine. I was so shocked that I fainted. I woke up in a hospital, handcuffed and was told I would be going to prison.”

Khumalo said she tried to report the friend to the police, but he could not be located. She took the fall as she was the one found with the drugs in her possession.

Khumalo called her family to inform them of the devastating news of being arrested for drug-trafficking in a country that has zero-tolerance for the crime and imposes harsh sentences on smugglers. She was in custody for two-and-a-half months before being sentenced to 23 months behind bars.

“Prison was incredibly difficult. I felt alone. I didn’t understand a word of Portuguese and communication was a challenge. However, Brazilian inmates were warm. I made friends with two fellow South African prisoners who were also busted for smuggling drugs,” said Khumalo, adding that she had no visitors throughout her incarceration.

“I wrote letters asking for assistance from our government, but instead, the South African consulate sent us (South African prisoners) magazines. Eventually, I received a devastating letter from President Zuma’s office which informed me that they only return corpses to South Africa.”

After her release, Khumalo joined a church in Rio de Janeiro and worked as a waitress to raise money for her airfare. A fellow church member also donated a large sum towards her flight so she could be reunited with her daughter, who she left when she was 9 years old. Khumalo, 33, said while her family was happy to have her back alive, her life was ruined and she could not get a job because of her criminal record. She’s also had to live with the stigma of being a drug mule.

“Life is difficult. I rely on my family to financially support me and my daughter. I miss being in control of my life. I am angry because I was used. I hope to speak about my experience, I will warn other women not to fall prey to such men and destroy their lives,” said Khumalo.

Her message to fellow convicted drug traffickers like Nobanda is to get counselling and take life one day at a time.

Sunday Independent