Losing a daughter to gender-based violence

Johannesburg – “There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about my lovely daughter who was brutally murdered.”

These are the words of Kenneth Nkwashu, a father still in deep mourning after his daughter became another statistic in South Africa’s Gender-Based Violence (GBV) scourge.

It was barely 15 days since his daughter Shongile Pretty Nkwashu started working as an intern doctor at the Mankweng Hospital, outside Polokwane, when her life was snuffed out.

Her January 2020 murder at the hands of her boyfriend, Ntiyiso Xilumani, sent shockwaves throughout the country.

Life for the Nkwashu family has never been the same since the day of her brutal murder.

“The brothers are not taking it very well; it’s difficult for them. But you know that pride that men have that we don’t want to be seen crying.”

For the family, the wound remains fresh with Nkwashu’s mother barely coping. The two he says, were like sisters.

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Another grim reality is that life will never be same for the intern doctor’s son who turned three-years-old this October.

The thought of his grandson never seeing his mother again haunts Nkwashu with the family having not mastered the courage to break the news to the toddler, who is still too young to understand the tragedy.

“I used to call my daughter Mama Shongi and now her son always ask me, ‘where is Mama Shongi? I want Mama Shongi.”

The 50-year-old dreads the day he will have to sit down and tell him.

“I know he’s going to get hurt to know he had a mother who was going to take care of his health, schooling and prepare for his future. Now he’s stuck with these old people who don’t have money,” he says, his voice filled with emotion and grief.

Finding forgiveness

Nkwashu, who is an agriculturalist for a non-government organisation (NGO), still does not know if he will ever find it in his heart to forgive the man responsible for his daughter’s death.

In a chilling admission to the Limpopo High Court, Xilumani confessed to strangling Shongile after an intense argument.

In a statement read in court by his counsel, Xilumani recalled how he left the village in Giyani on the Friday of 17 January to Mankweng Hospital where Nkwashu met him at the gate.

They then proceeded to the doctors’ quarters where the young mother lived.

According to reports, the perpetrator told the court that the father of the intern doctor had interfered in the couple’s relationship, sparking the argument.

“She bit me on my finger,” Xilumani said.

He then grabbed the 25-year-old by the throat, threw her on the bed and strangled her until she stopped moving.

Xilumani used Nkwashu’s stethoscope — which the deceased had at some stage, shown him how to use — and found that she had stopped breathing.

He then closed the door behind him and left the scene.

A foul smell led to the discovery of her decomposing body on the Sunday of 19 January.

The court also heard that Xilumani had a history of abusing the mother of his child.

Nkwashu, who took the stand to testify against his daughter’s killer, says it was no easy feat.

“Looking at him just freaked me out.  I had to be brave to testify against this monster for the sake of my family and daughter in particular. For me, it was even more painful to hear him say, he was in control of Shongile’s life,” he recalls.

This shook him to the core.

“I must be frank with you; I’m not ready to forgive even any of [his] family members because they also didn’t show any remorse.”

The 26-year-old Xilumani who pleaded guilty, was handed life imprisonment in September following a two-day trial.

In an interview with SAnews as the country commemorates 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children, Nkwashu recalled the last conversation he had with his daughter.

“On Friday when she knocked off in the morning, she called me. I think the perpetrator was there by then because she was so afraid of him. She asked me to bring her son. She was insisting and I could hear that this was not her normal tone.”

He could not bring the toddler to see his mother as he was planning to travel to Port Elizabeth for business on Sunday.

He promised to bring the boy the next week, however; she kept on insisting to see her son.

“She said daddy I want to see him [and] I said mommy, don’t worry. Your boy is safe,” he recalls.

The worst day of his life

The next day, he sent her a WhatsApp message saying he would pop-in by the doctor’s quarters.

“I said she must wait for me at the gate because I wanted to give her money for food and other things.”

He also could not reach her on the phone.

He knew something was wrong when he received a call from the police on Sunday around 11 pm.

“The police officer said there’s a problem with your daughter.  I said are you telling me that my daughter is dead?’”

A doctor who phoned Nkwashu told him he was “very sorry it happened” and that “she’s decomposing.”

“It was and it’s going to continue to be the worst day of my life,” says Nkwashu, who was out of town at the time.

He remembers phoning his wife who was already asleep by then.

“I said I’m not feeling okay. Can you please pray for Shongi? I couldn’t figure out a way to break the news to her. I believe that she prayed,” he says of the phone call.

He then proceeded to call his daughter’s uncles.

He had to take it like a man.

“I only shed a tear when I got home on Monday and my whole street was full of people and when I saw my wife. I broke down.”

Pursuing medicine

The intern doctor met the father of her son when she was in Grade 10.

The couple fell pregnant in early 2017 when she was doing her fourth year of medical school at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in Pretoria.

The family supported her throughout her motherhood journey. Nkwashu’s parents took in their grandson from the day he was born in order for their daughter to focus on her studies.

Nkhwashu admits to previously admiring the father of his grandson.

“I even used to call him by surname as a sign of respect.”

According to Nkwashu, the abuse began shortly after the baby was born.

There was a point when his daughter sent him a message seeking advice for a friend who was abused by her boyfriend.

“I told her to tell that boyfriend that he has an inferiority complex. But I think she was talking about herself.”

Xilumani was also threatening to harm her.

“I think he was jealous because she was achieving [a lot in her life] and he wasn’t.”

His daughter only had the courage to tell him that Xilumani was ill-treating her in 2019 when she sent him a picture of a swollen face.

A few days earlier, she had penned a letter to her son detailing the abuse she suffered.

Nkwashu begged her daughter to leave him and open a case with the police.

The father even informed the boyfriend’s family about the abuse.

However, nothing came out of it.

The life of a manipulator

He describes the killer as a manipulator who would sweet-talk his way out of anything.

“At some point, she told me, stop worrying because she wanted to deal with this issue on her own.”

However, never in his wildest dreams did he think it would culminate in her death.

“When I got the call I thought she might have committed suicide because she told me the boy was abusing her and couldn’t take it anymore. I never thought it would get to a point where that boy did what he did.”

A life cut short

The young doctor had her whole life ahead of her and had plans to plough back to her Dzumeri village, outside Giyani.

She wanted to serve her community by giving them the best healthcare that money can buy.

Most of all, she wanted to be a great mom and raise her son.

“We’d talk over the phone a lot and she’d ask me to take pictures of her ‘Tiger’, that’s what she used to call her son.”

Nkwashu misses his daughter who he says was intelligent, respectful, down to earth, loving and helpful.

He had to work extra hard to raise his children with his NGO salary even though it was not always easy.

“Economically, it was challenging,” he says.

His daughter was a top achiever at school, attaining six distinctions in Grade 12 that earned her a bursary to study medicine.

“She never failed a course, even got some distinctions up to her final year.”

The 25-year-old was also good with her father’s cattle and chickens. She had even thought of becoming a vet.

“I said, as much as these animals need someone to look after, there are people who [we] need to take care of. Let us look at a career that will save human lives.”

He also recalls how his daughter could not wait to become Dr Shongile Pretty Nkwashu.

“Their programme was going to start on the 3rd of January. But, believe me; she wanted to be there on the 1st when we were celebrating New Year’s Day.”

Speaking out

Nkwashu has called on communities to speak out against GBV, a scourge President Cyril Ramaphosa has described, as South Africa’s second pandemic.

“Every time we have problems, we look to government – that is the problem. Government can only arrest and pass sentences and can stop people from abusing others once they’re informed.”

He believes the culture of silence perpetuates violence against women and children.

“I even raised this at church with my leaders. But people kept quiet up until my daughter died.”

It has been a roller-coaster ride for the father who still cannot shake off the feeling that he should have done more to protect his  only daughter.

“I would have driven to her place and took action. Even if she had sent me a text, I would have called the police to check on her.

“I felt like I failed her. I felt like I could have read between the lines [and] that my daughter needed me when she said she wanted to see her son,” he says.

The objectives of the 16 Days of Activism campaign include expanding the call on men and boys to take a stand against all forms of abuse and the killing of women and children and promoting a multi-sectoral, collective action and responsibility in the fight to eradicate violence against women and children.

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