I sat on the cold concrete floor, in a puddle of tears, completely unaware of the icy chill. Completely unaware of the blood that stained the toilet and shower. Completely unaware of the prying eyes peeping through the high ceiling windows, utterly ignorant of the sobbing next to me. All I could think about was “how did this happen?” – Just two nights ago I was dipping in the Indonesian Ocean with the love of my life, celebrating our marriage and celebrating us. And now here I am, feeling hopeless, getting the news that there is nothing that can be done and accepting that I would have to sleep in this prison cell, not just for the night, but for five days!
And so begins my story, my story of ignorance and lack of knowledge. My account over five days that would change the lens through which I viewed my life.
Rewind to where it all started
We had just checked in for our 9 pm connected flight to Doha. The wedding ceremonies had concluded, and my husband and I were ever so excited to board the flight for our honeymoon. Border control was a nightmare. It was a long line of anxious travellers hoping to get through. My husband went to the desk on the left of me, and I went to the one on the far right. Nothing out of the ordinary. The scanner buzzed, but not in the most ordinary of ways. It sounded more like a light alarm. The lady at the counter looked at me concerned and said: “Uh oh, what did you do?”
Taken aback, I laughed, thinking it was a joke. She did not mirror my amusement, perhaps even more concerned, she lowered her voice and looked at me saying “there is a warrant for your arrest mam”. The words hit me, but still, I looked at her calmly, asking what it was about. She could not tell me. All I could think of at this stage, was damn I should have paid those speeding fines. And then thinking, I cannot miss my flight. I looked at my husband of two days and signalled him to come to me. As he did, a JPMD officer approached me and asked me to accompany him down to the internal police station. He assured my husband and I that I will by no means miss my flight and that whatever the warrant was, it was small.
After a visit to the station, having my ticket and passport scanned, the police officer looked at me with a warm smile and said: “all is sorted, just go and have a great time” – So it was that speeding fine then. Thank God. I rejoined my husband at our boarding gates. To my relief, our flight was delayed by an hour, so I got to explain the details to my husband, as we laughed it off and focused our attention on the start of our honeymoon. Oh, how eventful it has been so far.
Fast forward seven days later:
We boarded our connecting flight from Doha to JHB, 7 hours later we would be home. I had not even thought about my weird encounter seven days prior. We landed in South Africa, and I remembered the odd situation so I told my husband, that instead of me getting buzzed again at border control, I am heading to the station (as I was advised a week ago) and that he should get our bags and I will meet him at the airport arrivals. A tedious 20 minutes later a different police officer mentioned that the warrant was due to my failure to appear in court in 2014. And then it hit me; it was no speeding fine. It was my past coming back to haunt me five years later. It was a DUI gone wrong. Well when I say wrong, I mean it went well at the time. The officer at the time requested a bribe, in exchange for having the case changed to something a little more lenient and a subsequent complete wipe off the record. I was assured that it wouldn’t even see the inside of a case file if I were to drive to an ATM and withdraw a substantial sum of cash. So I did, as I suppose we all will, thinking it is easy the way out right? WRONG! So wrong.
It turns out that the officer got away with some extra cash and bragging rights for closing another DUI case. Despite handing over the money, the case file was written up and stored. I received SMS communication two days later stating I needed to appear in court so I called up the very police officer who so “gracefully assisted” me and he said it is a mere formality and that I should show up and he will have it thrown out. Immediately, alarm bells should have started ringing; I mean why did it even get that far after an “arrangement” had been made. And so I took half a morning of leave and popped by the court, which turned into a 6-hour wait and no mention of my name ever came up. The seventh hour struck and I was beyond frustrated. After acknowledging that my day was a complete waste I came across the initial officer I had made an arrangement with. He said if they never called my name, then it means that it was already thrown out. Oh! The relief! That was it. Done and Dusted. WRONG. AGAIN!
For whatever reason unknown to me, and every officer at the Edenvale police station, my name was not called out (as per my case file), but the warrant for my arrest had been issued.
Back to 2018, post-wedding and post-honeymoon!
Back to the Airport station in 2018 whereby my panic had kicked in, I was told that they would need to get a copy of the warrant emailed to them in order to proceed and that It would be done in the next 15 minutes. Two hours later and nothing. No warrant and no response from the Edenvale police station. At this point, I had called my husband and brother. I did not know how to react. I was shocked. Completely shocked. Not so fearful at this point. In the background, my husband and brother worked tirelessly to get ahold of our lawyers and get them to the relevant police stations to have a look at my case files and move forward with a plan of action. Three hours later, still at the airport and still no warrant. Little did I know according to SA law, if the warrant is not physically obtained within two hours, they have to let you leave.
Que in the ignorance that is our fundamental rights as civilians and a long list of unknowns which we eventually learnt the hard way. Almost three and a half hours later and the warrant arrived, and the arrest was made. As my rights were read out and my statements were taken, the gravity of the situation had sunk in. That bribe was a backfire. Sure the charge was changed as promised, but the case was in fact submitted. And my “failure” to appear in court was a breach of the terms. My warrant was not for my initial charge; in fact, none of the police officers cared about that. It was for contempt of court. Oh hell!
My husband and relative were waiting for me at the central airport station at O R Tambo when I had to hand over my hand luggage and accompany the police officers to the Edenvale police station. Still calm but increasingly panicked, I did as I was told. The Edenvale officers (two undercover cops) took another young and quiet lady and I into custody, but it was not in a marked vehicle, and I was not cuffed. It appeared somewhat dignified, but the fear of the unknown at this stage started eating at me. A short while later we reached Edenvale police station, and after a bit of paperwork, we were told we would have to be placed in a holding cell until it was our turn in court. And so we waited, this silent yet pleasant stranger and I, obviously out of place in an imprisoned courtyard that led into a massive prison cell. A cold cemented, graffiti-covered cell that reeked of the odours left behind by previous occupants. But alas, It is only for a few more hours, right? WRONG! So wrong. AGAIN!
4 pm: It turns out that the police officers at the airport took so long to process the paperwork that the magistrate had left for the day and the court was closed. Since the charge was a contempt of court, the warrant was issued by the magistrate and not the station itself. Meaning it would need to be the court that granted me bail and the police station itself could not do it themselves. Seemed simple enough right? Wrong! It was a Thursday, the day that followed was Good Friday, a public holiday. We all know the courts do not open on a public holiday. They really don’t.
5 pm: My husband and quiet mother walk into the cell with a friend of my brothers and husband and the family of the modest lady. In the eyes of my husband, I saw sorrow and shock. In the eyes of my mom, I saw tears as my husband said the words I would never forget. “I am so sorry love, but we tried everything, you have to stay the weekend – but we are still trying everything. We have all our lawyers on it.” – He felt helpless. The words strained out of his mouth as he said it.
As he said the words, I hear a slight shreak as the girl opposite me folded into her mom’s arms as she was told the same news. There was nothing anyone could do unless we could get a magistrate to the court at that hour, and that was not happening.
Despite being allowed the necessities and food supplies, I could not stomach any food. Sleep was not something that came easy to me, so I made use of sleeping pills to pass the time by and pills to constipate me. Surely anything would be better than using the blood-stained bathroom. Lucky for the lady and I, we had a cell to ourselves for pretty much most of our 5-day stay. This was one of the assurances we had. Besides, we were allowed visitors twice a day which made it that much more tolerable. Morning visits included my Mom, brother and sister in law and husband, the evening visits were with my husband, in our cell. I hated that everyone had to see me like that. So broken and so defeated. Every time I saw my mom and husband I just wanted to break down and hold them and get back home to my staffies. The next morning I woke up to the sound of our cell gate and door opening, as I lay on the floor, trying to adjust my eyes to the light, the sound of the constable and the site of the cell made it all sink in. It was not just a jet lag induced nightmare. It was really happening. As the first night drew to a close and after an uplifting visit from my husband we attempted to freshen up with wet wipes and a heap of body spray and hand sanitiser. Just as I removed my clothes, I felt like I was being watched. Not by my cellmate, she was watching the courtyard cell door so that she could let me know if the guards were coming in. I looked around uncomfortable and heard a whistle, as I looked up, I caught the gaze of several eyes peeping through the cell windows. The male prison cell overlooked ours, and our windows opened into their courtyard. They could see everything, us crying, sleeping and now this. I quickly covered up and called my cellmate. Freaked out we used the prison blankets to cover the windows and close the one side completely. This would mean us spending a lot more time out in the courtyard of course, but anything would be better.
Time slowed way down
As the days went by we realised we were in it till Monday and we had to accept our fate, but it got harder. Significantly harder. I was struggling to hold on to any hope I had. I had befriended the pleasant lady who was going through the same thing I was going through. We became very close. The closest. She had seen me cry, laugh, smile and I had seen the same from her. She had been my hope when I was weak, and I was hers. She wiped my back when I could not do it, and I did the same for her. She held my hands when the lights would go off, and our cell would be shut for the night, she had become my sanctuary in a seemingly horrible situation. We learnt each other’s pasts, we shared profound experiences and at the end of it all, I gained a sister, one I know I could count on despite the worst.
By the morning of day four, I was slowly losing hope, after a disastrous visit through a holding cell by a very disgruntled constable who was clearly in a lousy mood intent on making our lives harder. I got back to our cell and lumped onto the cold concrete floor in the gated courtyard. Nothing of the outside world could be seen apart from the sky through the gated ceiling. I lay there waiting for my cellmate to return from her visit. An hour later and she had not returned, and I could not breathe. The thought of her being changed to a different cell was prominent in my mind. And just as my panic attack worsened, as I lay back on the ground, the very same butterfly that had appeared every day since Thursday appeared again. Every day it would show up at the same time for a few hours, flying outside of the cage, trying eagerly to get in without any luck. Despite my fear of butterflies, the site was calming, almost distracting. I would look at it flying for hours every day. And then the door creaked, and my cellmate was back. Distraught from her similar and unpleasant experience with the constable, but back none the less. I have never been so excited to see anyone before. I lunged forward and hugged her, so grateful to have her with me. As I looked up, the butterfly was gone. And then it hit me, that creature looked so familiar because it was a similar one that appeared at the funeral of my grandfather a few years ago. I remember it distinctly because it sat on the frame of my grandfather and the priest echoed the thoughts of us all, reincarnation.
Irrespective of what anyone would have me believe, to this day, that butterfly was more than just a sign for me. It was him. Keeping me safe, watching over me and letting me know it will all be okay. Our last night in and my husband and cellmates significant other had just left as we settled in for the night. Anxious for the morning to arrive. The morning arrived, and as promised we were prepped for court. A fresh pair of clothes later and an attempt to look half decent, we were escorted to the court where our families waited patiently. As we stood in a line along with murderers and rapists, our names could not have been called out sooner.
Alas five days later, I was home. In the shower, scrubbing out layers of my skin and grasping at handfuls of hair that was falling out, I thanked every power that is for the experience. I never welcome it and will never wish it on anyone who does not deserve it, but I appreciated the lessons it taught me. I understood the message I received, and I appreciated the bigger picture that was at play. I re-lived the experience every night when I would fall asleep through the nightmares I had, but slowly that faded too.
In the end
Sounds so dramatic, doesn’t it? A privileged girl spending a few nights in a prison cell and all of a sudden the world revolves around her? And that is precisely it. It was at that point in my life, the lowest of lows that I realised how focused I was on material possessions and material outcomes. It was at that point I realised just how lucky I was. To have all the luxuries that I do, but beyond that, how lucky I was to have the support structure that I had. It was awe inspiring. It was that very support structure that got me through it. My family rallied through it all, trying everything they could to get me out and to at least make me comfortable in a tough situation. I have been injured (pretty severely) in my life, I have been in car accidents, experience a home invasion and had my heart broken on numerous occasions, but nothing fares to this experience. An experience that would humble anyone!
My marriage was put to the test in its second week, and the unconditional love and support I received from my husband was something people can only hope to have after years of marriage. And here it was, a few days in, put to the ultimate test. He stood by me when I cried, wiped my tears, instilled hope, rallied my family together, kept my family strong and loved me through it all. He made two trips across JHB every day to spend an hour at a time with me. To keep me sane. It was the strongest I have ever seen him, despite him wanting to cave into the tears. My mom showed me the strength of a mother. She felt helpless and broken every time she saw me cry, but despite that, she was back every day. Holding me, praying with me and telling me it will all be over soon. My brother. My crazy, amazing brother stayed till the early hours of the morning for the first two days with my husband. Treating the police officers to dinners so that they would, in turn, be kind and compassionate to my cellmate and I. The team that my brother and husband made (who are also best friends of a few years) was unmatched. They explored every possible avenue and called in favours to ensure our safety in there. My awesome sister in law treated me to celebrity gossip in the form of magazines and books to keep me company and allow for days to go by faster. The rest of my family had supported me in the background. I did not want them all to see me that way, and so we had asked them to stay put, but the prayers and wisdom from my Sister and other sister law did not go by unnoticed. When I felt weak and lost, chatting to them helped me throughout the experience. My in-laws became my second parents at that very moment. They were supporting me from behind the curtains, helping in every way they could. Being there for my husband and I. It was all I needed.
I guess the moral of this essay is that there are a few lessons buried in this experience that I think you (the person reading this) could learn from without having to experience it for yourself.
- Do not sweat the small stuff. In a day we go through so much that bogs us down, drains our energy and negatively impacts our being but when you go through a situation like this whereby no amount of money or contacts can help you, and all you have is faith, you start to look at the world a little differently. For me, family became the centre of my world. Having that support structure proved that all I needed was to grow and nurture that aspect of my life. Yes, we always have challenges, but if you can look past it as just an experience placed there to help you grow, you will have more energy to focus on the aspects of your life that entice happiness and pure joy. We threw money at the situation, a LOT of money, but in a world of lessons, no amount of it will suffice.
- Know your rights. Throughout this challenging journey, my family and I have learnt so much about our rights that we did not know before the experience. Ignorance, in this case, is certainly not bliss. By knowing your rights, there is so much you can do to prevent what happened.
- Do not test the law. You can buy yourself out of a speeding ticket or perhaps bribe an officer when you are over the legal drinking limit, BUT you do not know your fate. Your number could be up. Do not chance it.
One year later, on the anniversary of my wedding, honeymoon and imprisonment, I sit here writing this, saying goodbye to an experience that tested my faith and saying hello to a journey through which I view with a new lens.