'I wish he was alive so we could talk' - Thembi Maphanga on healing after being burnt by her partner

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He’s long gone now, but 13 years after she was doused with petrol and set alight by her partner, Thembi Maphanga would like to sit down with him and talk about that fateful day.

They were in a loving relationship. She was happy with the father of her children. Though they were not officially married, he had paid inhlawulo and they were living together.

Four years into the relationship, they found out they were having twins and they were very excited.

“He was the perfect partner. He was very supportive throughout the pregnancy. Then we had an emergency and we lost one of the twins, the boy, he was a stillborn. The girl survived and she had to be incubated. She came home on her six-month birthday.”

But she knew another side to him, a dark side to him.

“To other people he was extremely charming, and he was smooth operator. Whenever we were with people, he would be the one that is entertaining the crowd and making everyone laugh. But to me he was abusive.”

She says her abusive partner, Sphiwe Makua, isolated her from the people she loved. He disconnected her with her family and friends.

Read more | My Story l Burn survivor on her modelling dream

“He tamed me, even hypnotized me. Got me to think that he was the only person I needed.”

It was all behind closed doors. Until it wasn't. Thembi has been vocal about her story in her journey of healing. It's been 13 years. 

On 14 March 2010, he got her into the bedroom, locked the door and then dosed her with petrol. They struggled over the matches until he overpowered her and burned her. Their two-year-old daughter Keamogetswe was also in the room.

Kea died a few days later.

Thembi was in a coma and could not attend her daughter’s funeral a week later. Sphiwe was arrested and later sentenced to 10 years in jail.

He died by suicide in 2016 after having served two years of his 10-year sentence.

“I did not want him to die, I feel like that is the easy way out. But now he is gone.”

Now 13 years after the fire, she would like to talk to him.

“I wish I could sit down with him and talk now that we have healed. I would like to talk about that day without shouting. I would like to know what he was thinking or what he thought would happen.

She was burned by her partner in 2010.
Thembi and her daughter Keamogetswe.

“Eight months after the fire, when I was still pink and bandaged, I went to see him in prison. I did all the talking while he just cried. I told him that I forgave him, and I wanted him to see that I did not die. Then I went back to hospital.

“After attending physio, I went back to see him and again he cried, and he apologized. I wanted to let him know that I has seen the video of our daughter’s funeral and I had noticed he was not there. I also wanted him to know that I was not going to leave town because of him. He had to know that we were bound to bump into each other, and I did not intend on running in the opposite direction if I saw him.”

She says in the duration of their relationship, he was always insecure.

“The abuse started with him shoving me, then it was a clap. The third time he kicked me so hard I went to open a case with the police. But he apologized and I went back to the police to withdraw the case. His family was aware of the abuse but he promised never to do it again.”

She says their fights were not even about big things like infidelity, but he would get upset over little things.

“He would get upset because he came home and I was wearing makeup or a short dress. He was even upset when my colleagues bought me big gifts for my baby shower. As an artisan, I work in a male-dominated industry, so obviously most of my colleagues are males, but he was upset about that too.”

Thembi has gained back her confidence and even though she doesn’t want children again, she has tried dating.

“I have not been in a serious relationship because men are weird. Some are afraid to kiss me, others are scared to answer their friends and family when asked why they would choose to be with me instead of many other beauties. Or the worst part, they want see if I am really a woman and the cookie is real.”

She has never attended therapy because of her ability to let things go.

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“If I cannot change a situation then I let it go. There is no use carrying around all that anger, bitterness and resentment. My heart is just too fragile for that.

“I am just living my life and being there for the people I love.”

One of the things she has experienced is children being scared of her, but she understands.

“A little child once stood in the middle of a store, pointed at me and screamed. I cannot be upset at that. The child does not know any better.”

And even though her life changed because of fire, she is not afraid of fires.

“A month ago, there was a housewarming I was attending and I love to cook. The people there would not let me cook on the fire outside because they were worried about me and my skin. I am grateful for the ability to let go of my trauma.

“I have learned to live my life. The fire that burned me is long gone and I cannot stop living and doing the things I love because I am afraid of flames.”

She now runs an NGO and is an advocate for burn victims.

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