David and Goliath
16-year-old Sibongile Sam is a paradox in the simplest form: meek and mild in appearance, but embodying an inner strength that is unparalleled. She tells us her story of courage, a ‘David and Goliath’ life experience of how she stood up to her father.
Sibongile was born and raised in Gugulethu, the youngest of three children, when her older brother was eight and her sister was six. As a laat lametjie*, she was close to her mother and saw her siblings as mentors in her life. Although her parents lived together, they were never married and she describes her relationship with her father as distant.
“We never had a real father-daughter relationship. I can’t remember spending birthdays with him, or having him around to talk to. I would always watch dads with their daughters on television and wished we’d had a relationship like that, where fathers were involved.”
Longing for a relationship with her father, Sibongile played all the sports her school had to offer and enrolled in everything she thought would impress him.
“I always wanted to be noticed by him, so I tried my best from the time I was in primary school, working really hard at academics and in sports - handball, rugby, soccer, chess, spelling bees. I tried hard to impress him, aiming to make him proud. I wanted him to watch me play, or just tell me that I’d tried my best even when I’d lost a match, but he never came to watch any of my matches.”
What confused Sibongile the most, was that she would hear her father talking to others about her from time to time, but he would never say anything to her.
“I would give him my report card from school and he would take it and say nothing. I felt ignored; I felt like I did not matter.”
In their home, her father’s angry behaviour was not only directed at her, but towards everyone else.
“He was not interested in anyone and he also did not care financially. My mother was a domestic worker, so she didn’t earn much money, and what she had she would use to buy food for the house. My father worked in a law firm, but he would spend his money going out with his friends most weekends and only come home on a Monday. It seemed like he didn’t mind if we had food to eat or not.”
To help the family out, Sibongile’s brother got a job when he was 13. He was a good swimmer (a skill he learned at a public swimming pool), and was approached to be a lifesaver at the beach during weekends.
“My father would make my brother feel bad about working, saying that he wanted to be the head of the house and that he was acting as though he was better than him. My brother is quiet, so he would try to calm my father down. But my father wouldn’t stop. My mother would try to tell my father that my brother was just trying to help, but my father would just continue yelling.”
When Sibongile began high school, her home situation changed. Her sister received a scholarship to a private school, and would only come home during the school holidays. Her brother had begun university and was living in residence, leaving Sibongile alone with her parents.
“My earliest memory of my father’s physical abuse was when I was in Grade Nine, during the Easter holidays. It was just me and my parents at home when they began arguing. He grabbed my mother and bent her arm behind her back and tried to break her arm. I began screaming, then he chased me into the street saying that he didn’t want me there anymore. I told him to just give me my clothes, but he just slapped and punched me. A police van drove past so I stopped them and told them what was happening.”
“He told them that he was part of the neighbourhood watch and denied hitting me, but the policeman saw the mark on my face and asked about it. The policeman said that it was a family thing that we should sort out and told my father that he should be a man and unite his family. He told them it was a misunderstanding and they just drove away.”
“After that he said to me that if he had owned a gun he would have shot us a long time ago. I was traumatised and didn’t know what to feel.”
Sibongile and her mother were then kicked out of the house by her father. Having nowhere to go, they moved into a shanty at the back of the house where her brother had stayed before moving out.
“We stayed there for about two months, then he begged my mother to move back into the house. I was reluctant and told her that I didn’t want to move back into the house. She said that we should give him a chance because maybe he had changed and that we had nowhere else to go.”
“He then acted like everything was okay, but after a few months he went back to shouting and swearing at us. I was afraid to be alone with him in the house.”
During this time both Sibongile’s brother and sister were at university, and even though she had spoken to them about what was happening, everything stayed the same, with the exception of her school work that began deteriorating.
“In Grade 10, I thought I was getting mild asthma attacks in school. I would become weak, as if I was being suffocated. I later found out from the school counsellor that they were signs of anxiety. I would see him in my head saying that I am stupid and so I started doubting my school abilities. It would take me a long time before I felt comfortable speaking in front of people.”
The day that saw the beginning of her family’s escape will forever be etched in her mind.
“One morning just before I wrote exams, I woke up and got ready for school. My father kept asking me to do things for him. After a while I told him that I couldn’t help him anymore because I needed to get ready for school, and that I was going to be late for an exam. So as I packed my school bag, he attacked me. He punched me, he took a knife and tried to stab me, so my mom and sister pulled him off me and told me to run out of the house. My mom and my sister were still inside, and he was hitting them and trying to stab my mom. My sister, who was almost the same height as my dad, managed to get the knife away from him. I stood outside the house, completely shocked. I had cuts on my hands and I didn’t know where I had got them from, but I was bleeding.
They came outside, and told me I should report him to the school because we had already tried reporting him to the police, but they hadn’t done anything. We believed that the school would put pressure on the police to do something. My mom walked with me to school, I then went into my class and I was upset so I told my teacher. She then took me to the headmaster. She asked me what had happened and she said they would have to report it to the police because I was a minor, and that he would probably get a warning. At the end of the day, I had to go back home.”
A few weeks later, during the June holidays, my sister and I were sleeping and he woke us up, shouting at my sister that she hadn’t washed the dishes the night before. When she got up to wash them he took a pan out of the oven and tried to hit her with it. When she saw him she locked herself in the bathroom. I grabbed the pan out of his hand and ran outside. He didn’t care that I had grabbed it, he followed me outside and got a heavy metal pole. I shouted to my mom and sister to run away. He turned on me and chased me. I fell and he started hitting me with the pole. I was screaming but he was blank, he looked at me like he didn’t know me. He said he was going to kill me. He tried to hit my head, but I kicked him in the stomach, I moved back and he hit me on my thigh. I screamed and my sister and mom got hold of the stick. My sister helped me up and told me to run, but I couldn’t run because it was too painful. I was limping and trying to get away and he then started hitting me again. My sister ran back to the house, took the kettle and threw hot water on him which stopped the attack. He was angry, swearing and shouting, and he called his mom and told her that we were attacking him. Then he left.”
Sibongile said that they knew they needed to leave the house before he returned.
“My mother didn’t know any better, she would always say that we would land up in the street if we left because we had nowhere else to go, but enough is enough.”
“My sister called her friend and told her what had happened, and they found a safe house for us. A social worker welcomed us, asked us what had happened and she wanted to see my leg. It was bruised and swollen. I could barely walk. The next day I went to the hospital, and they took pictures so that we could open a case against my father for grievous bodily harm. We decided not to do it because we did not trust the police. The social worker said we couldn’t stay there because it was a home for newborn babies, so we went to another safe house where we stayed for six months.”
“During that time my sister received a call from the police, because my father had opened a case against her. The social worker said that my sister was safe but that she shouldn’t go to university to avoid being arrested. She was in hiding until her friend’s mother got her a lawyer who said that she must turn herself in. She did that, and had to stay in jail for a few hours and then was released and returned home with us.”
Sibongile says that her sister, who was studying law, would never be able to practice law if she had a criminal record, so she knew she had to find the courage to lay charges against her father.
“I laid a case against him, and my mom went to court to ask for a restraining order. He was charged with child abuse, assault and intent to do grievous bodily harm.”
Today, Sibongile’s family is safe and although they might not be where they want to be, her mom is currently unemployed and her sister had to drop out of university, the trio of strong women are each other’s strength and motivation.
Concluding, Sibongile says, “It does not matter how big the giant you are fighting is. We all have giants within us, and when you find your giant called courage, then no-one can defeat you.”
Sibongile is a Leaders’ Quest participant.
* Laat lametjie means the youngest member of the family especially if there is a big age difference between the next oldest sibling.