This 83-year-old man is on a quest to find out how exactly his grandson died in prison

    A Tembisa grandfather has enlisted the help of the Wits Justice Project to find out how his grandson died in prison last year. MABUTI SHABALALA told Ruth Hopkins how he travels from Tembisa to the Sandton SAPS every week to try and get some answers, and keeps coming back with none. 

    On 16 August last year, Mabuti Shabalala, an 83-year old Tembisa man who everyone simply refers to as “Mkhulu” (grandfather in isiZulu), called his granddaughter Cynthia. “I said to her, ‘I have some bad news, Cynthia. I just got a phone call and they told me Mmeli is dead.’ She fell right here, I had to pick her up.”

    Mmeli Shabalala, Mkhulu’s grandson and Cynthia’s brother, was incarcerated at Leeuwkop prison in Johannesburg, following a conviction for robbery. Mkhulu, who raised Mmeli from the day he was born, went to visit the prison the same day. “The sister there told me that he had a bucket and was throwing water and then he slipped and fell. But then they showed me the place. I don’t believe that he would have died there. The cell is too small to slip and fall. He would have fallen on a bed.”

    Not only did the slip and fall theory seem unlikely, but there were also differing versions of events. The government mortuary told the grandfather that Mmeli was polishing the floor with a rag under his feet when he slipped and fell, there was no mention of a bucket and throwing water. When Mkhulu asked a fellow inmate what had happened, he said Mmeli was alone and coughed and fell. “So, that’s three different stories that they told me,” Mkhulu concludes.
    The discrepancies do not stop there. “In the government mortuary they showed me pictures of Mmeli they took before they washed him. His face was covered in blood and his left eye was swollen.” When he put his hands around his dead grandson’s head Mkhulu saw a straight deep cut on the back of his head. “As if he was hit by a sharp instrument.”

    The uncertainties surrounding his grandson’s death keep the old man up at night. “Every time I speak about Mmeli, it hurts me, because I loved the boy. He was obedient, a fun loving person, always smiling. I know Mmeli won’t come back, but I want the truth so I can sleep, knowing the truth.”

    The Sandton SAPS, who are responsible for the investigation into Mmeli’s death, have told Mkhulu that if he is lucky, he will get the post mortem “sometime this year”. The Department of Correctional Services (DCS), however, seemingly already have this report. Their spokesperson Logan Maistry stated: “The provisional medico legal report revealed no evidence of external traumatic injuries.”

    Mkhulu has travelled back and forth in taxis, from Tembisa to Sandton police station many times in his search for the truth, but he always returns empty handed. “If we are not lucky, when will we get the post mortem?” the 83-year old wonders.

    Amanda Shabalala, Mmeli’s cousin and Mkhulu’s granddaughter, is also not convinced of the “slip and fall’ explanation. “A few days after he died, a Leeuwkop prisoner phoned KAYA FM to say a fight had broken out. For me, that just rang alarm bells. He said no one was assisting them medically. The slip and fall story, I just don’t buy it.”

    Ruth Hopkins works as an investigative journalist for the Wits Justice Project.
    Unathi Mahlati co-produced the video with Ruth Hopkins.

    Featured image: screengrab from video