Shirley James.
Shirley James.

Gardener who used ’his position of trust’ to kill a Durban pensioner jailed for life

By Janine Moodley Time of article published Jun 11, 2021

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Durban: A gardener who used his position of trust to attack and kill Newlands West pensioner, Shirley James, in her home, will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Mzwakhe France Mbulawa, 45, was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder and 15 years for robbery with aggravating circumstances.

In passing sentence in the Durban High Court on Tuesday, acting judge Faith Mlaba said the case was one of femicide and, as a result, the minimum prescribed sentence must be adhered to.

Mlaba said Mbulawa took advantage of a pensioner who lived alone and planned her murder.

"Femicide is a grave deal in society. The accused killed a vulnerable, helpless old woman. This type of crime is prominent in the country. One only has to watch and read the news to see this. The court has the duty to protect the elderly."

The accused, Mzwakhe France Mbulawa in court.

Mbulawa, who lowered his head while his sentence was read out, had earlier tried to escape.

"The accused is in leg binds this morning because the accused tried to escape. Fortunately, he was stopped by police," said Senior State advocate Denardo Macdonald.

It is believed Mbulawa tried to escape as he jumped off the police van in the court prescient. Police managed to pin him to the ground and shackle his feet.

It emerged during the trial that Mbulawa entered the deceased's home on the day of the killing, grabbed her and tied her up. He then repeatedly hit the back of her head on the ground while he strangled her.

The state argued that a trail of blood found across the garage floor indicated she had also been dragged.

According to the post-mortem, manual strangulation complicated by blunt force head injury was what caused her death.

Mbulawa was arrested by Detective Sergeant Muhamed Basha of Newlands East SAPS a few days later after jewellery, electronic devices and bank cards belonging to James, were found in his home in Springfield Park.

Police established he had also sold the deceased's Lenovo tablet for R1000 and bought groceries with some of the money.

The state also claimed that after killing James, he returned the next day and stole other items including a gas cylinder and radio.

During judgment, Judge Mlaba rejected Mbulawa’s version that two unknown armed men were behind the robbery and killing.

The judge also found Mbulawa’s version that James entrusted her gate keys to him unconvincing.

"I have evaluated the evidence and cannot find that the accused’s evidence is reasonably or possibly true. There is no doubt that the accused attacked, killed and stole the property of the deceased. Accordingly, I am satisfied that the state has proven its cases beyond a reasonable doubt," she said in finding Mbulawa guilty on both charges.

The court subsequently heard that Mbulawa had five previous convictions including culpable homicide, theft and housebreaking.

Arguing in aggravation of sentence, Macdonald said this was a case of femicide. He said he was currently dealing with four other matters all involving women who were killed by people they trusted.

He submitted a statement by Natacia Kalyan, James’ niece in which James was described as a religious woman who was passionate about education.

James first became a teacher in 1966 and taught at Columbia Road Primary in Greenwood Park.

In 1984, she took on her first position as principal at ML Sultan St Mary's and eventually retired from Collegevale Primary School in 1997.

"Aunty Shirl always encouraged and motivated pupils to further their education, to study and become successful in life and not let anything get in their way. Her pupils always looked to her for guidance.

Kalyan said James was also sociable, independent and loved to travel.

"She had many friends and was always going on holidays, local and international. Her famous words were, 'I'm out ...not at home'."

James, who regularly attended St Aidan's Anglican Church in Durban, was a committed Christian and had travelled to Israel, (known as the Holy Lands to a Christian), with a group of church congregants.

She was baptised there for the second time.

Kalyan said James was a sentimental person and never parted with anything since the death of her husband.

"She kept many of his personal belongings as a remembrance. Any presents that she received was a treasure that she kept close to her heart."

A letter from her close friend, Cathy, was also submitted.

"She was our confidante, who would listen to our problems and give advice. She was ever ready to offer a helping hand in whatever way possible."

Macdonald called for life imprisonment and described the murder as a heinous crime against a pensioner.

"One would expect that such individuals within our communities should be cared for, looked after and treated with dignity, but unfortunately, in this case, that was not so."

"She was attacked in the sanctity of her home, a person whose security was paramount to her. She had two security companies working for her."

Macdonald said despite this, she trusted the accused enough to allow him to work on her premises.

"The accused used this position of trust and abused it to get closer to her in terms of trying to enter her house. He accosted her, bound her with her hands behind her, strangled her and bashed in her head."

Macdonald argued that she had no children and spent her life giving to the community.

"She was a teacher, then a principal where she served at two schools. She led an active life in that she travelled with friends. She met her demise by someone she trusted."

In mitigation, Legal Aid attorney, Patrick Mkumbuzi said Mbulawa had three children and was engaged to be married.

Mkumbuzi asked the court to consider that the accused had been in custody since August 2019.

"I submit, My Lady, that a period between 20-25 years would be appropriate, based on the period he spent incarcerated.”

After the life sentence was imposed, Mkumbuzi applied for leave to appeal the conviction and sentence. It was rejected by Mlaba.

James' family said they were relieved.

"Justice has been served and finally, we can move on. We are so grateful to sergeant Basha and advocate Macdonald for all of the hard work they did in securing a positive conviction and sentence. I'm sure our Aunt Shirl is in heaven, happy with the outcome too. She will always live in our hearts," Anil Kalyan, James’ nephew.

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