A teacher who spent more than a year in custody after being falsely accused of raping a child has been awarded more than R1.6m in damages.
In his civil case against the minister of police and the national director of public prosecutions, Patrick Buthelezi set out in graphic detail the experiences which he encountered while incarcerated — not least of which was his terror that his fellow inmates would discover he was the one accused of raping the nine-year-old.
This after a newspaper article found its way into his cell and was read aloud. It gave details of the case but did not mention him by name.
“It angered them,” Buthelezi said in his statement to court. “They referred to the perpetrator as a madman and a dog who should be stabbed.”
Buthelezi handed himself over to police in November 2011 after the nine-year-old at the Umlazi school where he taught claimed he had sexually assaulted her. He was denied bail.
He was freed 13 months later after it emerged the child had been beaten by her aunt before she pointed a finger at him.
Most tellingly, he was exonerated by DNA evidence.
At his civil trial, which determined the state respondents were liable to pay him damages, it emerged that both the investigating officer and the prosecutor had boosted the case against him during his bail application, and had withheld certain information.
Handing down judgment in that matter in 2019, Durban high court judge Mahendra Chetty said Buthelezi had been “sacrificed” to satisfy the need to make an early arrest and keep the offender behind bars, despite the paucity of evidence against him, even at the time of his bail application.
This week, Chetty made the damages award.
In his ruling, he said it was not disputed that Buthelezi had spent 388 days in jail, during which time he appeared in court 22 times until his eventual acquittal.
The stigma of having been arrested and tried for rape of a minor remains as a permanent stain on his character, with his acquittal seemingly relegated to insignificance.
Judge Mahendra Chetty
His case received much media publicity.
In Buthelezi’s statement regarding conditions in Westville Prison, he said new inmates were forced to buy their safety from abuse by supplying “senior” inmates with cigarettes and cellphone airtime.
He was forced to pay R600 for a clean bed, sheets and sponge to wash himself.
Chetty said: “The gang culture was evident in the hierarchy of prisoners. He witnessed stabbings and sexual assaults.”
After his release, Buthelezi consulted a clinical psychologist who concluded he had experienced fear, horror and shame and continued to have flashbacks.
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and in 2013 was admitted to hospital for 10 days for treatment for depression.
“After his release, he was barely able to sleep and repeatedly cried,” Chetty said.
Buthelezi said while he was back teaching, some parents still brought up the charges. He said in a large measure “it has scarred him for life” although he continues to teach in Isidingo, has since been appointed deputy principal and was the treasurer of an educare centre.
Chetty said Buthelezi had no ill-feelings towards the child who falsely implicated him and had forgiven her.
The state respondents did not call any witnesses.
Chetty, when assessing what damages should be awarded, said it would appear Buthelezi had been kept with inmates who were serving periods of imprisonment rather than in the awaiting trial section, resulting in him being exposed to gang culture and violence.
His detention was as a result of improper motives, particularly by the investigating officer.
“The stigma of having been arrested and tried for rape of a minor remains as a permanent stain on his character, with his acquittal seemingly relegated to insignificance.
“The starting point is that no person should be deprived of their liberty without just cause. It is a foundational value of our constitutional system.”
The judge said there was no formula or “flat daily rate” when determining damages. In this matter, he took into consideration the length of time Buthelezi spent behind bars, his status as a qualified educator, the exposure given to his arrest, and the humiliation he suffered.
He ordered the state respondents pay him R1,668,592 for general damages and loss of income, and his legal costs.
TimesLIVE (TMG Digital)