by Kylie Thomas
In January of this year Nomawethu Ngalimani, a woman I would call my friend if that were not to disavow all that made real friendship possible between us, was stabbed to death in her home in Khayelitsha, a township outside of the city of Cape Town in South Africa.
I met Nomawethu in 2002 while I was working on a book project that told the stories of the lives of 13 HIV positive South African women. Over the course of several months Nomawethu was one of the participants in an art and narrative therapy workshop process through which she shared the narrative of her life. She also created a life-size self-portrait that conveys how the context of extreme violence in which she lived has made its marks on her body.
She had always been a loud-mouth, a fighter, confident and self-assured. As a teenager she had been attacked by a group of men. She had been stabbed but she refused to give them the money she was carrying. She had been carrying a knife of her own and she wounded one of the men in his chest and they had run away.
The last time I saw her, in December 2006, she had had an operation to remove the cancerous growth in her eye and it had been successful. She seemed different - she looked happy, more at ease in herself. She was wearing a green dress.
In retrospect, the appearance of her slight body in uncharacteristically feminine clothes made her look smaller, more vulnerable.
In 2003 the South African Constitutional Court bought reproductions of the self-portraits the woman I worked with had made. Nomawethu's self-portrait is among them. It hangs in the gallery at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, a sign of her symbolic inclusion in the body of the nation. But now she is dead and her death is a stark reminder of the disjuncture that exists between the promises set out in the Constitution and conditions of life in contemporary South Africa.
I heard that the fact she was HIV positive had nothing to do with her death. I heard that she wasn't killed because she was a woman. I heard she wasn't killed because she was a black woman. I heard she wasn't killed because she lived in one of the poorest and most violent places in the world. I heard she wasn't killed because the rape and murder of South African women is just a part of life here. I heard she was murdered by her lover. I heard that they had fought over money. I heard that her greater access to funds because of her involvement in the book project made her a target. Her death was rationalised as an individual incident, which of course it is. And also isn't. Because until the lives of women like Nomawethu are no longer understood as expendable, their violent and untimely deaths are just part of the system.
A memorial service was held for her a week after she died. I found myself unable, unwilling, to attend. I wanted to participate in collectively grieving for her death but I did not want to go to the house in which she had been murdered. My own sense of vulnerability to the violence of this place and time, made more acute in the aftermath of Nomawethu's murder, immobilized me. I try to tell myself that I am mourning for her in my own way. At the same time, all that keeps me from expressing my grief in community is what I rail against here. Fear paralyses me. It keeps me from speaking out, from acting as I wish I could.
The book that contains Nomawethu's self-portrait is called LongLife: Positive HIV Stories (Cape Town: DoubleStorey Press, 2003).