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Burn victim fights for her life as suspect dies in police custody

Lindiwe Zitha fights for her life in hospital after her boyfriend set her alight. Picture: Supplied

Lindiwe Zitha fights for her life in hospital after her boyfriend set her alight. Picture: Supplied

Published Jun 14, 2023


IN South Africa, gender-based violence (GBV) is a severe and pervasive issue affecting every facet of daily life.

At least one of five women in the country (21%) experience physical violence by a partner. Lindiwe Zitha became part of these horrific statistics last week.

The woman from Mamelodi, Pretoria, was set alight by her boyfriend, Eric Marakalala, after he doused her with petrol at her home at about 8pm on Wednesday last week.

Marakalala reportedly died in police custody on Tuesday evening. He had suffered burns to his hands. Fifty-year-old Lindiwe is the sister of former Banyana Banyana striker Khabo Zitha.

Marakalala's death was confirmed by Gauteng police spokesperson Colonel Mavela Masondo this week. He said an inquest docket into Marakalala's death has been opened and a post-mortem would be conducted.

According to the former national team striker, the family had no idea Marakalala was abusing Lindiwe.

“It is now after I went through her phone, I discovered that Eric made my sister’s life a living nightmare. I found messages where she told a friend about what he was putting her through. In one of the messages, Lindiwe told her friend that the perpetrator extorted money from her,” Zitha said.

She said she did not know who Marakalala was and when he and Lindiwe had started dating until the day of the fire.

“From what I’m hearing, my sister and the perpetrator dated for some time, then broke up for whatever reason. When he returned, he forced himself into her life and threatened him when he would not have his way.

“Lindiwe's multiple protection orders against him did not stop him from coming into our family and sleeping over forcefully. When my mother and sister dared to speak, he threatened to kill them both. I suspect that is why she never said anything to us – she feared for her life,” Zitha said.

Not only did Marakalala terrorise Lindiwe and her mother, he also tormented a tenant who lives in the family home. He would meddle in the family taxi business, take money from the drivers without permission, and bully them.

“He took advantage of the fact that my sister and elderly mother were scared of him,” Zitha said.

When recalling that fateful evening, she said Marakalala saw a window of opportunity when the township had load shedding. She further said that the suspect intended to burn the house and cars.

“He poured petrol all over the cars, but I think his plans were interrupted when my sister walked outside, and he hid. When she got closer to his hiding place, he poured petrol on her and set her alight, burning his hands in the process.

“Lindiwe quickly ran into the house screaming for help and was assisted by Bongani (tenant), who also sustained minor injuries, while Eric fled the scene,” Zitha said.

Upon hearing of the incident, Zitha said she was shocked and traumatised. She said she could not understand how someone could be so heartless and cruel.

“This is one traumatic event I had had to deal with. I was told her injuries were not that bad when I received the call, but I saw a different story when I arrived. Seeing my sister's skin falling off and picking it up every two seconds was the worst.

“I cannot begin to describe what I felt at that moment and what I’m feeling now. It hurts even more now that Eric is dead. We will never get answers or justice for my sister. Who will we go to court with, or how will we know what exactly happened now that he is deceased? We have more questions than we do answers,” Zitha said.

The perpetrator died on Tuesday at 5pm after allegedly complaining that he was not feeling well. He had appeared at the Mamelodi Magistrate’s Court the previous day, and his case was remanded to June 12.

Lindiwe is in the intensive care unit (ICU) at Life Wilgers Hospital in Pretoria East. She has undergone at least three surgeries for skin grafting and eye restoration. Her condition remains critical.

Anti-GBV organisation NotInMyName International has supported the Zitha family and has demanded justice for the victim. The non-profit organisation has called on men to stop making women's bodies their crime scenes.

“The details of what happened to Eric in his holding cell are still sketchy. Our focus right now is on the victim’s recovery. We are hoping for her speedy recovery. We will continue to support the family during this difficult time,” said the organisation’s spokesperson, Themba Masango.

According to Masango, South Africa needs more proactive approaches to deal with GBV instead of reactive methods. He said communities must work closely to find these proactive solutions and educate each other about GBV and how it affects victims, families and society.