Wednesday, 16 November 2011

No Justice for Neo

Life in Africa has been busy. 

I've visited five of South Africa's nine provinces.  I've stood mere feet away from lions, rhinos and elephants.  I've run a 10K race in the Soweto Marathon.  I've competed in a provincial dancesport championship and will compete in the national dancesport championships in two short days.  I've visited Constitution Hill, the Constitutional Court and the Apartheid Museum.  I've done a bike tour of Soweto.  I've worked on dozens of human rights cases.  I've worked with a human rights legend.  I've tried great food.  I've moved.  I've grooved. 

And I promise to post about these events "just now" (African for when I get around to it). 

For now, I want to share with you a story about a girl named Neo.  The Legal Resources Centre assisted Neo with her case.  At the end of the case, I wrote an article that was published in The Pretoria News (Pretoria is the capital of South Africa).  Here it is for you to read:


By all accounts, Neo Sobuza was a woman.  She dressed like a woman and presented and identified herself as a woman. 

But Neo was biologically male and, according to Neo, her female presentation offended Metrorail security officers so much that on 18 April 2008 they violently attacked her while she was taking the Metrorail from her home in Boksburg to university in Johannesburg. 

After requesting to see her ticket, which she immediately produced, an officer said, “Uyini?” (What are you?). 

Neo did not answer. 

The officer quipped with a second officer, “How can it be a girl when it shaves?” 

The second officer’s response was, “These are the kinds of people who need to be beaten up.  There is no woman who shaves.  He has no breasts.”

They snatched Neo’s purse, dumped it and saw that she had make-up and women’s deodorant.  This infuriated the officers.  They hinted at buying Neo’s sexual services and said she had to take her clothes off.

As the train was pulling out of the station, one of the officers grabbed Neo by her clothing and pushed her out of the moving train.  She rolled over three times on the platform coming to a stop on her back. 

She sought help from Metrorail officials, but received none.  Instead, they threw her up against the wall, strangled her, handcuffed her and slapped her across the face. 

Despite there being many bystanders nearby, nobody intervened to help.  She could not call an ambulance because her phone had been broken in the attack.

She lodged a complaint with Metrorail officials.  Nothing came of it.  Metrorail denied the incident ever happened.

Neo suffered greatly following the attack.  In addition to the resulting physical pain, she had trouble sleeping and experienced headaches and difficulty concentrating.  The traumatic incident led to hair loss, increased stress, depression and panic attacks. 

It impacted her entire life.

With the assistance of the Legal Resources Centre (the LRC) in Johannesburg, a non profit legal services and human rights organisation, proceedings were instituted in the Equality Court on 25 March 2011 naming the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa and Hlanganani Protection Services (Pty) Ltd as defendants. 

The particulars of complaint alleged, among other things, infringement of Neo’s equality rights, human dignity, freedom and security of the person, and state protection rights entrenched in the South African Bill of Rights as well as infringement of Neo’s freedom from hate speech in terms of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act.

The LRC filed Particulars of Neo’s claim on 22 September 2011.  In addition to seeking monetary damages for medical expenses, the claim sought an order directing that the defendants refrain from discriminatory practices, engage in sensitivity training workshops for employees, and make a written apology to Neo. 

After a pre-trial meeting on 8 September 2011 with Judge Saldulker of the Equality Court, the case was well underway.  Then the unthinkable happened.

After repeated phone calls to Neo without any response, LRC staff began to worry. 

They travelled to Neo’s home in Soweto where they met a woman who had taken Neo in to live with her family.  She told them that Neo had died in June.  She was 32. 

According to the death certificate, the cause of death remains “under investigation”.

LRC staff travelled to Boksburg to meet Neo’s mother and to obtain the autopsy report.  Their visit to the Post Mortem Report Office in Braamfontein revealed that Neo’s death was still under investigation because her autopsy report had gone to Pathology Services’ Toxicology Department. 

It has been reported that a national backlog of about 20 000 toxicology samples has South African toxicology departments running behind by nearly 10 years on average.  The Johannesburg toxicology department’s 6 000 case backlog currently has it processing samples from 2004-2005.

According to the LRC, this was to be a major transgender case in South Africa.  Gender DynamiX, a non profit human rights organization based out of Cape Town, reports that transgendered individuals face significant obstacles in everyday society, including fear of public spaces, workplace discrimination, family rejection, HIV vulnerability and difficulty obtaining identity documents and accessing health care and public services. 

Being a Black transgendered person, like Neo, adds yet another layer of discrimination and stigma.      

LRC Attorney Naseema Fakir says, “Our hearts go out to Neo’s family and friends.  She was a brave woman and we are very sad to hear of her untimely passing.”

As for the status of Neo’s case, Attorney Fakir says, “This was effectively a case of he said/she said.  Hlanganani denied the incident ever took place.  Metrorail did not file any papers.  After consulting with counsel, it was reluctantly decided that, without Neo here to testify, we had no choice but to withdraw the claim.” 

A Notice of Withdrawal of Action dated 17 October 2011 has been filed with the Court. 

There will be no justice for Neo, but the LRC is hopeful that Neo’s story will put others on guard that such egregious human rights abuses will face swift legal action.

I offer an additional story that was not included in the article. 

Neo's family did not accept her and she was forced to live elsewhere.  When another LRC staff member and I went to the home in Soweto where Neo was living, we met the owner of the home, an elderly woman named Boniswa.  We asked Boniswa if she was related to Neo.  She said, "No, but she was a nice girl with nowhere to go and I liked her so I took her in."

I am always touched by the depths of human kindness, compassion and generosity, especially for those in our society who need it most.