‘Warder said, you are free as a bird, and I felt like I could fly’
Wrongly jailed for 14 years, this man’s parents and a law-student friend stood by him
For 14 years Njabulo Ndlovu craved jeqe, the steamed bread lovingly prepared by his mother.
On Monday, the former second-year law student who had been sentenced to life in prison for the gang rape of a pregnant woman in 2002, ate the simple delicacy to his heart’s content.
It was a poignant moment – one of the many Ndlovu intends on ticking off his list of things to do since his conviction and sentence were overturned last week.
Ndlovu’s life “stopped” at 19 when he was wrongfully arrested for the gang rape of a woman, whom he had schooled with, and known as the daughter of his father’s co-worker.
He was a second-year law student at Durban-Westville University, had a girlfriend and was planning to take driving lessons to obtain his licence.
In 2002 he was sentenced to life imprisonment and spent 13 years and two months behind bars trying to prove his innocence.On Friday the Pietermaritzburg High Court acquitted Ndlovu of rape and discharged him from prison after it found that there was no DNA linking him to the crime and raised concerns over the conduct of the magistrate who presided over the trial.
He was released from Westville Prison on Monday.
“When the warder opened the door and said Njabulo, you are free as a bird, I felt it. I felt like I could fly. I felt emotionally free. I felt like something moved off my shoulders,” he explained.
He then walked into his mother’s arms, after which he was whisked away to Umlazi, where a welcome home braai hosted by his family awaited him.In prison he was called the “unqualified lawyer”.
For more than a decade he helped other prisoners prepare applications to take to court, and helped wardens, who were studying law, with their assignments.
Now, Njabulo “just wants to be in a courtroom as a lawyer and not an accused”.
“I could have had my own law firm today. I could have been law partners with my friend, Andile Magubane, but I was robbed of that,” the 35-year-old said on Thursday.Ndlovu said that despite his incarceration he remained positive behind bars – even when he was confined at the Ebongewi C-Max Prison in Kokstad for three years – because he had friends and family who believed in him.
A large portion of his father’s retrenchment pay and his mother’s salary as a cleaner paid for his legal fees and his correspondence learning with Unisa, which earned him his law degree.
“They never gave up on me. But funds ran out,” Ndlovu said.However, he was given hope again when attorney Andile Magubane, who had become a close friend when they met in their first year at university, tracked him down in prison in 2015.
“The day before he went to court for sentencing, he told us he was going to go to court. He went to court and we never saw him again.
“We were worried for quite some time and then we remembered he lived in Umlazi. We went to his house and his mother told us he was in prison. That was in 2002,” Magubane said.
After losing track of Ndlovu over the years, Magubane visited him when he asked for help with his appeal.
Magubane took on the case pro bono and approached the Bloemfontein Supreme Court of Appeal after Ndlovu’s leave to appeal was turned down.
Asked why he chose to help Ndlovu, Magubane said: “He was my friend and I believed in his innocence.”He said the 19-year-old Ndlovu was a gentleman.
“He was even a gentleman in Westville prison. And his results in university? A brilliant guy. He is a good man.”
When Times Select accompanied Ndlovu to his Umlazi home on Thursday, he invited the journalist and photographer into the house before disappearing into the kitchen.
A few minutes later he brought out two glasses of juice on a plate for them.
His 64-year-old father Mbuso smiled and nodded.
“I have mixed feelings about Njabulo being home. I have feelings of joy and feelings of sadness as well. I am happy that my son is back home after so many years in prison.
“But on the other hand I am sad and angry that my son had to spend all those years in prison being not guilty. I imagine the pain he went through and what we went through as a family knowing that Njabulo is there, sentenced for life for a crime he didn’t commit.”
Njabulo wiped away tears as his father spoke of his courage and positive attitude behind bars.His father then stood and held his hand out to congratulate his son.
“I am proud of you, son,” he said.
Ndlovu then hugged his father tightly and said: “Thank you. I am here because of your support.”
Ndlovu’s mother, Makhosazane, said the family planned to throw him a graduation party at the end of September.
“He never had one. He deserves one,” she said.
Ndlovu plans to serve his articles, get his driver’s licence, take a computer course to keep up with the technological advances since his incarceration, and “hopefully, one day get married and have a family”.
“I will make it happen,” he said.