I THANK God for this, the relieved mother of convicted drug mule Nolubabalo Nobanda said yesterday, shortly after her daughter was jailed for 15 years in Thailand for smuggling 600g of cocaine into Bangkok in her dreadlocks.
As friends and family crammed into Honjiswa Mbewu’s home in Joza, Grahamstown, to hear the latest news about their “Babsie” from her uncle and family lawyer, Advocate Ntsikelelo Sandi, Mbewu said while she missed her daughter terribly, she was grateful she had not been given a life sentence, or worse – the death penalty.
“I can’t say I’m happy. My child is still in a foreign prison. But this is better than a death penalty, life in prison or even more than 50 years in jail,” she said.
Nobanda, a former pupil of Victoria Girls’ High School in Grahamstown, will celebrate her 24th birthday next month behind bars.
She was sentenced yesterday after pleading guilty to charges of drug smuggling. She faced a 30-year prison sentence if she pleaded not guilty.
She was also fined the equivalent of R250000. If she does not pay the fine, two more years will be added to her sentence.
Images of Bangkok airport authorities unbundling the cocaine from a bewildered Nobanda’s dreadlocks shortly after she stepped off a flight from Sao Paulo, Brazil, were beamed across the globe last year.
“Even though my child is still in a foreign country, at least I know how long she is going to be there,” Mbewu said.
Sandi, who travelled to Thailand to see Nobanda in March, said he was hopeful that, pending good behaviour, Nobanda might be released before serving her full term.
“After returning from seeing her, I compiled a list of statements from people [Nobanda] worked for in Grahamstown.
“The statements, together with her sworn statement, helped in convincing the judge to be lenient,” Sandi said.
Nobanda’s statement to the Thai authorities about how she was lured into the drug-smuggling underworld reads like something from a Hollywood script.
In her statement to the Bangkok Criminal Court, Nobanda said South African authorities could use her account of what had happened to “investigate the activities of human traffickers”.
It all started after a former childhood friend, Sulezo Rwanqa, approached her with a business proposal, she said.
“She said she had a Nigerian friend in Port Elizabeth whose name was Samuel.”
Samuel had a brother, named Tony, who was based in Brazil, Rwanqa had told her.
Tony and Samuel would not only pay for their airfare to the country, but also give them spending money on condition they return to South Africa and “sell hair chemicals for him [Tony]”. In December, Rwanqa ended up leaving on an earlier flight, but met Nobanda at Sao Palo airport with another man who escorted her back to their hotel.
After arriving at the hotel, she was introduced to a fellow South African, known only as Hilda.
“She said she was employed by Tony and it was her duty to receive people who came to work for [him]. She first wanted to know if we knew what we were coming to Brazil to do.”
The work, Hilda warned, was “very hard and dangerous”.
“I asked Hilda what she meant by dangerous. She said it was about selling and delivering drugs for the Nigerians,” Nobanda said, adding she was shocked and feared for her life.
That was when she realised she had been misled.
Hilda warned Nobanda that it was too late to get out as she could be killed and her family harmed as the men were “very brutal”. They were taken to a house to start “training”.
“We were to swallow the drugs wrapped in condoms so that when we got to the point where we had to deliver the drugs, we could just eject them from our bodies at the toilet,” she said.
“I cried and said I could not swallow the stuff. I was vomiting but I was forced to try,” she said.
Then they suggested hiding it in her hair.
“The two Nigerian ladies then wrapped the drugs up around my hair. This took several hours. The weight around my head was so heavy that my head was painful. I was so dizzy I could not walk.”
She took pain killers and went to sleep. When she woke up, she was taken to the airport and told that she would get R16000 to deliver the drugs to Thailand.
When she arrived in Bangkok, immigration officials came “straight for me”.
Nobanda said she had decided to come clean in the hope that authorities would investigate human trafficking in South Africa.
“By the time I came to Brazil there was no way of turning the clock back and pull myself out of the sophisticated web of deception of which [my friend] was apparently a part,” she said.
Department of International Relations and Cooperation spokesman Clayton Monyela said the South African embassy in Thailand would continue to support Nobanda during her imprisonment.
Additional reporting by Neo Bodumela