Father spent almost two decades in prison for crime he did not commit

Mokoena as he walks out of Kroonstad prison 2011 (Photo: Wits Justice Project)

Mokoena walks out of Kroonstad prison in 2011 (Photo: Wits Justice Project)

To see this article as it appeared in the Saturday Star, click here.

HAZEL MEDA

Free State welder Tshokolo Mokoena has big dreams for his 11-month old daughter, Karabo.

“I would like her to be the Minister of Justice. This all comes from what I have experienced.”

Mokoena spent 19 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He and his friend Fusi Mofokeng were wrongfully arrested in April 1992, accused of taking part in a shoot-out between an ANC Self-Defence Unit and the Bethlehem police. Mokoena and Mofokeng were convicted of murder and armed robbery under the notorious doctrine of “common purpose”.

The real perpetrators of the crime confessed and were given amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1998. But the two friends insisted that they were innocent and told the TRC they couldn’t confess to a crime they didn’t commit, so they were sent back to prison.

Mokoena’s first child was three years old when he was arrested and he lost contact with her and her mother – from whom he was separated – for a few years.

“It was tough. I found it difficult to cope, but I accepted that I am not the first man to experience such,” he says.

He still had dreams of a happy family life, but that dream seemed like it would never come true as he was moved to several different prisons and was unsuccessful in appealing his conviction. Thankfully, Mokoena and his friend were released on parole in April 2011 after a campaign by the community, churches, ANC members and the Wits Justice Project.

Shortly afterwards, Mokoena went into a clothing store to buy a jacket. One of the saleswomen, Percival Vangxa, caught his eye.

“I was attracted to her at first glance,” he says.

He asked her for her phone number and what time she finished work. They met later that afternoon.

“I told her my history and she accepted it,” Mokoena says.

Their love for each other grew and Vangxa soon conceived. Karabo was born in July 2012.

“I felt like God had answered my prayer. It’s all God’s doing,” the proud father says.

Although it had been years since Mokoena had last held a baby in his arms, he adjusted easily to fatherhood.

“There’s nothing difficult about it; you just need to take responsibility.”

Mokoena is actively involved in raising Karabo and looks after her while his partner is at work on Saturdays.

“That’s when I get to bond with my daughter. I bathe her, feed her and do everything for her.”

The 52-year-old enjoys his role as a father, but isn’t planning to have any more children.

“Age is not on my side really, so two kids should be enough!”

Mokoena still has a criminal record and strict parole conditions, which complicates his life. He has to notify the police whenever he leaves Bethlehem and has to sign in at the police station every two months. The Wits Justice Project is still helping Mokoena and Mafokeng in their appeals for a full pardon.

Despite these challenges, he is finally enjoying the family life he dreamed of, with little Karabo as the light of his life.

Mokoena does not expect any gifts this Father’s Day. Instead, he will be taking his partner and daughter out for breakfast.

* Hazel Meda is a member of the Wits Justice Project, which investigates prison conditions and miscarriages of justice. The WJP is based in the Journalism Department at the University of the Witwatersrand. Translation support for this article was provided by Leigh-Ann Carey and Dineo Bendile, students in the Honours Journalism programme at Wits.

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About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

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