Placenta thief escapes jail term

Sne Masuku

Sne Masuku

The cleaner at a KwaZulu-Natal hospital caught red-handed three weeks ago with a placenta has been sentenced to one year's imprisonment, suspended for five years.

Honiphile Sokhela, 33, contracted to Durban's Parklands Hospital, had been suspended from her work since her arrest.

She was arrested in the hospital's parking lot while she tried to sell the human tissue to a police officer.

Yesterday, she arrived in court with a scarfaround her head, again trying to hide her face from newspaper photographers.

On Friday, she was released on R2000 bail after she pleaded guilty to stealing the placenta from the hospital's storage room.

She said she had heard from someone that traditional healers used the after-birth tissue to "make muti for good luck purposes at casinos, racehorse courses and gambling outlets".

She had cut the placenta into small pieces and placed them in bottles for sale. "I was then arrested when I attempted to sell it to a policeman for R500," said Sokhela.

She said she had every intention of obtaining financial benefit by selling the placenta to members of the public who believed that it would bring them good luck.

Through her lawyer, Naren Narotam, Sokhela pleaded with the court to show her mercy for the crime, saying she earned a low salary as a cleaner and had seen an opportunity to make money to support her two children and her extended family.

Narotam said Sokhela suffered from an incurable disease, had children to take care of and that no harm had been done to anyone.

The placenta she stole was lying in the storage room.

Convincing the court that no excuses should be taken into consideration for committing such a serious offence, the prosecutor, Kureshni Pillay, said there were other avenues that Sokhela could have turned to for finance.

Pillay said what she did was inhumane, and the only reason she had pleaded guilty was because she had been caught.

She recommended that Sokhela be sentenced to one year in prison or pay a fine of R2000.

Passing sentence, magistrate Sharon Marks said that according to the Human Tissue Act, the sentence she had handed down was the maximum.

Marks said judging by the offence committed, she could not understand why the maximum sentence was so low, especially in this country where human trafficking was so high and where human tissue was used to make muti.

She said Sokhela had shown remorse by pleading guilty.

"I can see that you regret what you did," she said.

Sokhela stood with a look of disbelief after the sentencing, as if she could not believe its leniency. She turned to the public gallery behind her with a look of relief on her face.

"From now on I am going to ask before I take something that does not belong to me, even a cup of coffee," she said jokingly to her lawyer.

Department of health spokesman Chris Maxon said they welcomed the sentence.

"We believe that this should be a lesson to all other healthcare workers who are involved in stealing body parts or planning to do so, that they should stop their acts," said Maxon.

He said the department would not comment on the law, saying they were happy it had taken its course.