Saturday morning, I jolted awake to the sound of my phone receiving a text message at 5:15 a.m. “Hi, Claire, I hope you are well,” the message from John read. “I’m fine; I’m sorry your trip to Maputo didn’t work out for this weekend. Next time! I have some bad news; Justice is dead. Take care, sisi.”
I stared at the phone and read the text message again, sure that my grogginess was playing tricks on my eyes. If you have read some of my earlier posts on this blog, you may remember that Justice was one of the staff members at the guest house where I stayed for my first three months in Swaziland.
I tried to call John back, but when I couldn’t reach him, I called another friend from the guest house, Chazile. “Sisi, what happened?” I asked, afraid to hear her reply.
“You remember when our boss beat John and Justice in June, Siphiwe?” she asked me. I said I did. “Justice was never the same after that,” Chazile said. “He was very brutally beaten, sisi, and there was bad damage to his liver and kidneys, and after that he was always in pain. He died in the hospital in Siteki yesterday. We called him in the afternoon, but he wasn’t able to speak to us. And then a little while after that, he died, sisi.”
I may not have written on this blog yet about the incident that Chazile referred to. Just before I arrived in Swaziland in early June, Justice and John were serving the Sunday brunch crowd at the restaurant adjacent to the guest house, and the owner – a severe-looking man with a shock of white hair, a frown that seems to be etched permanently onto his face, and a large (albeit sluggish) frame – accused them of pocketing some of the change from the guests. The amount they were accused of stealing was 20 rand, less than $3.
And in reality, they had only been on their way to give the change to the cashier. The owner and his son – who matches his father in his frame – waited in the stockroom and pounced on Justice and John when they came in, attacking them without warning and beating them badly. John took a 3-week leave to recover and came back to work with the scars still etched onto his face, but Justice could only afford to take a very short leave before he returned to work, not yet recovered. The incident was reported to the Department of Labor and the father and son paid 1,000 rand each in fines (a little more than $100), and that was the end of that. The small amount that each of them paid in fines, by the way, is significantly more than each staff member at the guest house earns in one month. To the owners, 1,000 rand is like pocket change; yet they were willing to strip these men of their health and dignity for less than $3.
Over the following several months, Justice had been struggling to recover his health, but he only seemed to be getting worse. He was a man of only 35 or 40 years, but I watched his hair turn gray and his body start to shut down, even within the short span of time for which I knew him. I had brought a huge bottle of Advil with me when I came to Swaziland, and much of it was used to ease Justice’s pain, although I don’t know how much it really helped him in the long run. In the days before he died, he had apparently been crying from the wrenching pain in his stomach. By the time he got to the hospital, it was too late.
“His wife is pregnant, sisi,” Chazile told me with mourning in her voice. “Can you imagine? Life will be very, very difficult for this woman now. Justice was the only one working, and all of their children are in primary school. How will she manage?”
“So they will all be in secondary school at the same time – how on earth will she be able to pay school fees for all of them?” I asked without really expecting an answer. In my mind, I imagined with a sinking feeling where Justice’s children were likely to be in ten years’ time – sitting in a market selling vegetables, or on a corner selling cell phone airtime to passing businessmen and women, or being forced to work for the same kind of people that Justice did, instead of going to school. Yearly school fees for students in secondary school range from 3,000 rand to 5,000 rand. Even with Justice working, it was going to be a huge struggle, considering that he and the other staff at the guest house earn only 750 rand per month, much of which is spent on transportation to and from work. How he managed to support his children and wife on such a meager salary is beyond me. And what his wife will do now – that is also beyond me.
“For now, sisi, we’re just concentrating on helping his family any way that we can. I don’t know yet if they have the money to have a funeral or to buy a casket. I’ll let you know anytime I hear any news, sisi,” Chazile broke into my thoughts.
Since Saturday, I have been thinking about the time I spent at the guest house, and I honestly cannot remember one time when I did not find Justice with a wide grin on his face and a laugh that was quick to surface. Even when he was obviously in pain, trying to walk straight and instead achieving only a lopsided limp, he was the most cheerful person in any room. I knew that he had been using a cane to walk for a short time recently, but the last I heard, he had been doing much better.
Later, when I was able to get in touch with John, I found out a little bit more; that Justice had told the owner of the guest house how sick he was feeling and that they had taken him to a doctor (who ran some tests but did not give him any medicine) but that he had returned to work doubled over in pain that did not improve, and had had to take several days’ leave. On Thursday, he asked the owner of the guest house for transportation to the hospital in Siteki, several hours away, which was granted to him.
But when he got there, his health problems had simply progressed too far, and he deteriorated quickly. John told me that the hospital was going to call him this week with the official results of the autopsy, but that they were fairly certain that lingering complications from the beating he took had been the cause of his death. Everyone was waiting to hear from Justice’s older brother about funeral arrangements – if the family will be even able to afford a funeral, that is.
This weekend, my thoughts have never been far from Justice, or his children, or his wife. I am saddened that I will be attending my first Swazi funeral and will experience this aspect of Swazi culture for the first time. It makes me think of something Mandla said to me during one of our car rides back to the guest house after work in July or August
“If you make it to 29 in this country, you are old, Siphiwe,” he had said to me, glancing over at me before returning his gaze to the winding highway ahead of us. It had hit me like a slap in the face. Justice could not have been more than 35, and it is tragic to me that his death could possibly be seen as timely (even in a relative sense), and that those responsible will likely go on living life as normal, feasting every week at the very Sunday brunch where the whole thing started, even as Justice’s wife and children struggle to scrape together a few rand to buy food that will fill their stomachs but never the hole in their family.