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Wisdom Mathebula is the wife of the first ranger killed in conflict with poachers in the Kruger National Park in 60 years. As we mark World Rhino Day 2018, we urge South Africans to consider the human cost of the poaching crisis that has gripped the country for a decade.
Bags of cement, a wheelbarrow stacked with bricks and some window frames piled against a wall are obvious reminders of the home and the life she was building with her husband, Respect Mathebula (34), before the SANParks ranger died from wounds he received in a gun battle with poachers in South Africa’s Kruger National Park on 19 July 2018. He was the first ranger killed by poachers in the park in 60 years.
They married young - she was just 17 when they met - and have three children together; Tintswalo (1), Vutomi (6) and Khanyisile (12). Bafflement and pain have made an island of her, but there is a smile on her face as she remembers the bold young man who pursued her, determined from their first meeting over the fence between her village of Islington and his village of Clare in Mpumalanga, that would marry. “Our relationship was so strong, no one could separate us,” she recalls, despite the initial trepidation of her parents. “They came to love him wholeheartedly, as I did”, she emphasises.“Wholeheartedly.”
Outside a baby cries. It is Tintswalo, waking from her nap. Her other daughter and son are at school. Wiping her eyes, Wisdom welcomes the shy little girl onto her lap with soft hands and murmured endearments. “These are the stories we will tell you about your father one day,” she says to the tiny girl, who clasps her mother’s neck and gazes around with liquid eyes.
“It had always been Respect’s wish to work in the Kruger National Park,” Wisdom continues, holding Tintswalo close. “He had a passion for animals. I used to visit him sometimes when he was based at Crocodile Bridge. In the evenings he would sometimes look very quiet and then he’d tell me about encounters with poachers,” she says, pausing.
“I never thought this could happen”.
Wisdom takes a small sip of water. In the silence, the August winds rattle the rooftop and a lick of dust dances through the yard, pulling at the buttery blossoms of a large knobthorn tree.
“He told me sometimes how they would sleep on the rocks, waiting for the poachers to come, often in the dark. Sometimes in the rain. He also told me why he did it. I also developed great feelings for these animals he was protecting,” she explains.
She recalls the fateful evening during his last tour of duty. “On 19 July,four people came driving here. They were asking people for directions along the way and our neighbours warned me. I sensed it was bad news. I asked them “where is my husband?”. When they broke the news, my heart broke,” she says, recalling the immediate confusion and aftermath of the tragic news. It’s still not clear to her exactly what happened on that day.
Silent tears run down her cheek but she takes a deep breath and smiles for Tintswalo, who is nuzzling around in search of milk. Always a mother, her children’s needs remain top of Wisdom’s mind and she feeds the baby as she talks. It wasn’t always easy when Respect was alive, and as the sole breadwinner, she knows they will face tough times emotionally and financially in the future, “although the community has been very supportive for the most part,” she notes.
This wasn’t always the case when Respect was alive. Although well-liked in the community, she recalls an instance in a taxi, when a man threatened her. “He told me my husband was very troublesome. I could see the ill-feeling he had towards him. But I was always proud of him,” she says.
Three of Respect’s seven brothers, Helly, Herman and Liverance, and her sister Buhle, come to check on Wisdom as she talks about her husband. His death has drawn them around her like a cocoon. He is buried in the backyard of the homestead, close to his parents. The flowers from the funeral have dried out, but she doesn’t want to remove them just yet, she says, putting the baby on the floor to play with an empty tupperware, her eyes fixed on the fresh grave.
“I think the most important thing to talk about now is the way he treated us. The way he loved his family; me and the children,” she says, pulling herself back into the room. Just a week after the funeral, their son, Vutomi, told her he didn’t want to go to school. “He was afraid that what killed his father would kill him too. The youngest are too small to understand, but one day I will have to answer that question for them. Why did daddy die? How did daddy die?”
Have her feelings for nature and conservation changed? “Not yet. He was killed by people, not by animals,” she says quietly. “But I am very bitter. The pain is very raw. They have interrupted the life of my family. I want them behind bars. I want a life sentence for what they have done. It was 60 years since the last ranger in Kruger was killed. I see that mentioned again and again. Why now? Why him? Why Respect?”
The weight of it bows her shoulders and she lets out a loud sigh and reaches again for Tintswalo, lifting her close and stroking her plump cheek. All this talk about Respect has made Wisdom want to see him again and she pulls some photos out of a drawer, holding the child he’ll never get to know. Wisdom is still and quiet. Tintswalo’s hand reaches for her father's face.
This article was first published in the Saturday Star on 22 September to coincide with World Rhino Day and to highlight the human cost of the poaching crisis.