IN THE seven months it took the Social Welfare Department to respond to a report of child abuse, the 4-year-old girl had already been murdered by her stepmother.
And yesterday, in sentencing the “pure evil” stepmother to 20 years in jail, Durban Regional Court Magistrate Anand Maharaj lashed out at child welfare organisations, saying that they had all failed Nomthandazo Mjawara and that their lack of action “borders on criminality by omission”.
He instructed that his judgment be forwarded to the provincial social development MEC.
Evidence before Maharaj in the trial of Nokuzola Yalo was that a neighbour, Caiphas Komo, had witnessed the constant abuse of the little girl and had reported the matter to Childline in September 2007.
In turn, Childline had reported the matter to child welfare authorities.
In January the following year, Nomthandazo was murdered.
But only in July that year did Childline receive a response from child welfare personnel, stating: “No contact made with the child and the social worker could not locate the house and the child’s name was unknown.”
That was in spite of the Childline report clearly identifying the neighbour, giving his full details, the address of the child and details of the alleged abuse.
Under the question “is the child safe?”, the Childline counsellor who took the call wrote “no”.
“These (child welfare) institutions failed this child miserably… the lack of assistance is beyond comprehension. They are failing in their constitutional obligations,” the magistrate said.
To matters worse, he said, Childline’s Linda Naidoo had testified that this was not an isolated case, and that at least two other cases of child abuse that had been reported to child welfare authorities had not been acted on in time, and that those children had also died.
Yalo pleaded not guilty to two charges: one of ongoing child abuse, which was alleged to have taken place between June 2007 and January 2008 at the family’s Lamontville shack, and one of murder.
She told the court that the child just “fell dead” while playing, and explained away old injuries by saying that the child had not always lived with her.
However, Komo testified that he had seen the child being assaulted “because she would wake up after messing”.
In passing sentence, Maharaj said that Yalo had “systematically tortured” the little girl, with the post mortem revealing some 29 injuries, excluding seven old scars and fractures of the arms and ribs.
“You are pure evil… the epitome of the cruel stepmother depicted in fables,” Maharaj said.
“And child welfare and others are just as guilty as you for their lackadaisical attitude… the documents before this court reflect a department of child welfare that is poorly run and failed dismally to help this child.
“The department should shoulder the blame and take responsibility for what happened, and adopt measures to prevent further casualties,” he said.
Maharaj said that that Yalo’s conduct had been cowardly, dastardly and heinous, and that the interests of society dictated a strong sentence.
He ordered that she serve five years for child abuse and 15 years for murder.
Social Development Department spokesman Mandla Ngema said that the department had been unaware of the sentencing and the magistrate’s comments, but that it would follow up on the case today.
“While I cannot comment on what transpired in court, I can say that the department makes every effort to respond promptly to reports,” he said.
Ngema said that many child welfare organisations handled reports of abuse, and the department should not be blamed when children died.
“Although there is oversight by the Department of Welfare in the province, there are many societies and we do not know what is happening all the time.
“We are, therefore, ignorant of cases at times until the issues are brought to our attention,” Ngema said.
He said that MEC Meshack Radebe had ensured the department’s call centre was always open to assist people reporting abuse.