Text and photos by Lerato Dumse
It was a bittersweet moment when Thabo Molefe (47) was sentenced to a concurrent 22 years for murder and 12 years for raping Lihle Sokhela (28). Sokhela was a black lesbian from Daveyton. There was complete silence inside Pretoria North Magistrate Court F, on Thursday July 30 2015, when Judge Mokgotsi announced Thabo’s “punishment” for his September 2014 crime.
Joyce “Sibongile” Tshabalala, Lihle’s cousin, sat in the public gallery, supported by members of the LGBTI community, Treatment Action Campaign, Women’s Ecumenical Conference part of the South African Council of Churches, and Commission for Gender Equality. Sibongile felt that the sentence was a slap on the wrist, considering that this was the 7th conviction for Molefe, dating back to 1983.
Lihle’s supporters, who attended the High Court trial since day one (Monday July 27 2015), echoed her sentiments.
Defended by Advocate LA van Wyk, Thabo’s “not guilty” plea became an obvious sinking ship when the judge started delivering the verdict, on the morning of July 30. The modus operandi in Lihle’s case is strikingly similar to other lesbian rape and murder cases. As Judge Mokgotsi put it, Molefe “took advantage and betrayed the trust that Lihle had for him, oblivious to the danger and risk to her life.” Testifying during the trial, the tavern owner where Thabo and Lihle were last seen together on September 14 2014, said, “the two friends were the last people to leave that fateful night.
It was not established during the case how or why Lihle ended up at Thabo’s house. As the sole eyewitness, Thabo alleged he was romantically and sexually involved with Lihle for about a year. He also stated that he was aware that she is lesbian when he approached her, and that he was not bothered by it. He said it was Lihle’s idea that they go out drinking that day, he only provided the money and it was also her idea that they go to his house afterwards. He said things turned sour between them when Lihle wanted to leave during the night and go to a friend’s place. This he said caused them to have an altercation, Lihle strangled him, and he retaliated and strangled her back for about 10 seconds. They stopped fighting, she then requested for some water and he gave her before they slept. Thabo said he only discovered in the morning that she was dead.
In his Judgement, Mokgotsi rubbished Thabo’s claim, calling his testimony a deliberate attempt to mislead the court. Aided by witnesses whose testimonies were rated as credible, Mokgotsi said the state, represented by Prosecutor Salóme Scheepers, managed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Thabo had indeed raped Lihle and it was not consensual as Thabo alleged. While his motive for murder and keeping her body for more than 24 hours, which was proved by the post-mortem results, was found to have been an attempt to get rid of the evidence and an eyewitness. Judge Mokgotsi did rule out that this crime was a “corrective rape” which is often associated with the rape of lesbian women in South Africa.
After his guilty verdict was handed down, the state then read a list of previous convictions. It was revealed that for his first conviction 32 years ago, Thabo was sentenced to caning for a crime of malicious damage to property. Then in 1985 he received a four-year prison sentence for House Break-in, was released but violated parole. In 1988 he added another House Break-in conviction, in 1999 he introduced assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm to his list, and kept it growing by adding theft the following year. He took it a notch higher in 2002 with a conviction on two indecent assault charges, relating to the anal penetration on two young boys, a sentence he is now supposed to complete since his re-arrest for Lihle’s rape and murder.
The court found that the murder and rape incidents were not premeditated. He sat in the box with his feet cuffed together and grey hairs in his head. The Judge told him that he had shown no remorse and taken no responsibility for this crime, proving he is not rehabilitated. The court was adjourned briefly after the verdict to complete some administrative processes before the sentencing was conducted.
During the break Thabo sat with his head bowed and appeared to be crying. The crowd sitting in the public gallery taunted him, asking him if he was also in tears while raping and killing Lihle. It was however Lihle’s cousin Sibongile, who earned a menacing glare from Thabo before bowing his head again.
Dawning their red tracksuits, Xoliswa Bofelo a representatives from Women’s Ecumenical Conference said God gave her the power to wake up every morning and attend the trial. Speaking a day before the judgement and sentence was passed; she was among those who believed Thabo deserved a life sentence. She said, “As women of prayer, we feel for all children and not only ours or our sibling’s children,” before adding that the pain she feels as a mother when such crime takes place, comes from the pit of her stomach.
Before announcing that the state and defense have 14 days to appeal the conviction and sentence, Judge Mokgotsi said to Thabo, “You violated her dignity and took away her right to life.” Mokgotsi said Lihle had the right to walk the streets at any time, had the right to go out and enjoy herself, had the right to be lesbian and that society needs to respect people.