How SA woman escaped death sentence in Iran

John Wotherspoon, Glory Matipile, Patricia Gerber and Marcel van der Walt on the panel talking about South African citizens in prisons abroad. / THULANI MBELE
John Wotherspoon, Glory Matipile, Patricia Gerber and Marcel van der Walt on the panel talking about South African citizens in prisons abroad. / THULANI MBELE

When Nokwazi Memela visited a Nigerian church in Yeoville, Johannesburg, she thought it would help improve her life, not knowing she would end up in an Iranian jail, facing a death sentence.

Memela was 39 years old when she was approached by members of the church while on her way back from work.

This was in 2006. She worked as a domestic worker in Yeoville to take care of her five children who lived with her in an RDP house in Alexandra. Her children were aged 20, 15-year-old twins, 13 and 10.

Memela shared her story yesterday at a panel discussion in Braamfontein looking at drug mules going to other countries through OR Tambo International Airport.

She said at the church, three pastors befriended her and started visiting her home for prayers.

When the pastors were convinced she was really struggling financially, they started giving her more help. Every Saturday, the pastors would bring Memela food parcels, something she appreciated as a single parent, she said.

"They told me that a senior pastor has a brother in Iran who has a company that imports carpets from Iran to China. They said the pastor is looking for ladies who could import the carpets and that would really help me with my finances. I took that offer because I trusted them. They were pastors," she said.

She said they even helped with all travel documentation.

In Iran, she was hosted at a five-star hotel. But at night, her host in Iran came and took her to a flat.

At that flat, she found another woman from Uganda who had been lured through the same scam. After a few days, Memela and the other woman were told there was no carpet business and they had been brought to Iran to swallow drugs and take them to China.

"I was supposed to swallow 150 grams of heroine. It was bigger than a lipstick. It is hard to swallow and is hard as a stone. I failed to swallow all of them and I took some and strapped them around my waist," she said.

But when she arrived at the airport to depart for China, she was caught. Not long after, she started bleeding through her nose and ears as the packaging in her stomach burst.

She woke up in hospital under police guard. Memela underwent surgery and part of her stomach that was open was not stitched. She was discharged and sent to jail where she struggled sleeping on the floor with a wound.

Memela went to trial and was given a death penalty.

"The South African embassy intervened and my death penalty was reduced to a life sentence," she said.

Memela served seven years and was released by the Iranian government when it thought she was about to die due to illness. She had been diagnosed with womb cancer.

Father John Wotherspoon said there were 45 South Africans in Hong Kong prisons. Wotherspoon, who works as a chaplain in Hong Kong prisons, said 20% of all drug mules arrested in Hong Kong in 2018 and 2019 took drugs via OR Tambo Airport.

"So many people are unemployed. Nigerian gangs in South Africa are very skillful. People are poor and there is a lack of security at OR Tambo which is a perfect storm. We really need to do something about it," Wotherspoon said.