The Trials of Mandla Dube
Early on the morning of July 3, 2004, a battered green Ford Aerostar pulled out of a parking lot high in the hills of Griffith Park. The minivan rattled down Western Canyon Road, rounding hairpin turns edged by 100-foot cliffs. But when it reached the broad curve at the bottom of the incline, the car plowed straight ahead. As a trio of joggers dived for cover, it rolled down a shallow embankment into a pine grove and slammed into a tree. Screams could be heard from inside the van, and then children began jumping out. An 8-year-old boy emerged with his 11-year-old twin brothers. Two teenage boys followed, and passersby helped them pull a 4-year-old out of his car seat.
By this time, the driver had appeared — a short, wiry black man with blood pouring from a gash in his forehead. He shouted for the kids to get back in the van. When the 8-year-old cried, “Daddy, no,” the man ran to the street and lunged in front of an oncoming car, which barely missed him. Park rangers found him soon afterward, pacing in circles and mumbling incoherently. The only words they could understand were “My beautiful wife has left me. My beautiful wife has left me.” The rangers handcuffed the man, and everyone waited for the police ?to arrive.
The driver, as it turned out, was a 33-year-old South African filmmaker named Mandla Dube. The four younger boys were his children, while the teenagers — Patrick Wilkinson, 16, and his brother Adam, 19 — were stepsons of the renowned jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela. Dube (pronounced “DOO-bay”) was supposed to be taking all the kids to a shoot in Compton, but he made a detour to the park. After drinking a concoction of unidentified herbs, Patrick and Adam said, Dube began behaving strangely. He demanded that they remove their shoes and hike a trail near Griffith Observatory. He struck Patrick with a stick. During the walk, the two boys told investigators, Dube declared, “I killed my wife this morning, and now I’m going to kill you.” Back in the van, they said, he made the threat again, and apparently tried to carry it out.
Aside from Patrick, who dislocated his shoulder, only Dube suffered a serious injury. On the way to Cedars-Sinai in an ambulance, Dube told the EMTs that he had killed his children and cut off his penis. At the hospital, doctors administered a sedative and stitched up his head wound. The next day, he was charged with six counts of attempted murder and five counts of child abuse. Each carried a possible sentence of 15 years to life. Bail was set at $3 million. Dube was placed in the downtown jail known as Twin Towers.
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It soon became apparent, however, that this case was more complicated than it seemed. To begin with, Dube’s beautiful wife had not left him. He had not murdered her or mutilated himself. Once his head cleared, he claimed that he had never meant to kill himself or his passengers. Eventually, even the prosecutors seemed to have their doubts. For more than a year, a host of interested parties — friends, family members, lawyers, hired psychiatrists and, not least, Dube himself — would struggle to understand what happened on that July morning. What caused an apparently sane man to suffer a psychotic break on a day he had awakened happy? Why would a caring father, with no history of violence, behave as Dube did? Was it a case of reefer madness, as the prosecution suggested? Was it a little-known side effect of caloric deprivation? Or was the crash in Griffith Park the climactic stage of a multivehicle cultural collision?
Lindiwe Dube stood in front of a tired-looking bungalow on Heidleman Road in East L.A. A tiny woman with a striking face — huge, intelligent eyes; button nose; full lips — she wore a violet top and cropped white jeans. A 6-foot-long royal python lay draped about her shoulders. Outside, her house was a tan stucco shoebox; inside, it was all High Revolutionary Afro-Funk: ebony sculptures, drums, and a sofa draped with an African batik; posters of Marley, Tupac and Malcolm X. Four-year-old Nkosinati toddled about in a “Free Mandla” T-shirt.
Lindiwe poured two cups of chamomile tea and told her story in lightly accented English. The events leading up to the crash began in 1996, she said, when the couple was living in Mandla’s hometown of Mabopane, a black township outside Pretoria. That year, Dube shot Hugh Masekela’s first music video, “No More Crying.” The South African pop-jazz pioneer, internationally known for such hits as “Grazing in the Grass” (1968) and “Bring Back Nelson Mandela” (1986), was at a low point in his career, and the video — in which Lindiwe played the pretty girl who sat on his lap — helped Masekela climb out of the hole. It also helped launch Dube’s career as a cinematographer.
Four years later, in 2000, Mandla enrolled at the American Film Institute and moved his family to Los Angeles. The move had a side benefit: The twins, Zweletu and Zenzile, who are autistic, could attend the kind of remedial school (the HELP Group in Sherman Oaks) that was rare in South Africa. Mandla flourished at AFI; he won an honorable mention in the annual student competition held by the American Society of Cinematographers. But a scholarship fell through, and paying gigs proved scarce. The family’s savings quickly dwindled, and just before Mandla got his master’s degree, in 2002, the Dubes wound up homeless. They camped at first in Malibu Creek State Park, then in a Glendale shelter and a series of cheap motels.
In their native country, Mandla and Lindiwe had belonged to the Zion Christian Church, a South African sect that melds Christian teachings with indigenous traditions. They still kept the ZCC Sabbath, taking their sons on barefoot walks in Griffith Park each Saturday to pray and meditate. They also fasted at least one day a week in an effort to purify both body and spirit. In early 2004, God seemed to reward their exertions when Mandla began landing steadier production work. That April, they moved into their new house. Lindiwe started a business, selling T-shirts hand-painted with mystical symbols and uplifting mottoes (“Wisdom is worth more than silver and gold”) to local boutiques. “We’d been through so much in this city,” Lindiwe told me. “Finally, everything was good.”
That June, Masekela, whom the couple hadn’t seen in years, appeared at Esowon Bookstore in Baldwin Hills to promote his new autobiography, Still Grazing. The whole family came to the event — including the python — and Mandla and the boys acknowledged the occasion’s sacredness by going shoeless. Masekela embraced his old colleague and introduced him to his stepsons, Patrick and Adam, who had grown up in Ghana and were attending Santa Monica College. The teens hoped to become filmmakers, and Masekela asked Mandla to help guide them.
Mandla interpreted this request (incorrectly, Masekela later asserted) in a way that reflected his Zulu upbringing. He would not simply teach the boys the fundamentals of filmmaking; he would put them through a rite of initiation. “At home, they call it ‘growing them up,’ ” Lindiwe said. “Teaching them the right way, the right path.”
July 3, the day Mandla scheduled his first session with Patrick and Adam, was a Saturday. It was also the day before Mandla and Lindiwe’s 12th anniversary. To give thanks for their marriage and their restored good fortune, the couple had been fasting for five days. Mandla had slept little the two previous nights; he’d been up unpacking boxes retrieved from storage. Still, when he awoke at 4 a.m., his usual time, he seemed cheerful. He got the children ready for their outing — they often accompanied him on shoots as part of their own induction into manhood — and left the house around 6:30.
Mandla had told Patrick and Adam he would pick them up at AFI, which borders Griffith Park, at 7 o’clock. They would then drive to Compton to interview Zane Smith, a Crips founder–turned–community organizer, for a documentary Mandla was planning on L.A. gangs. So they were surprised when he turned into the park instead and herded them off on the Sabbath hike.
The group headed barefoot up the sagebrush-covered hill, walking for about 30 minutes. To flush out his system, Mandla drank a mug of South African rooibos tea; to combat the bad breath caused by fasting, he gobbled fennel seeds (neither substance is known to be psychoactive). On the trail, he began babbling unintelligibly. Lindiwe believed his hunger was to blame. He had never had such a reaction before, she said, but perhaps other factors — the climb, the lack of sleep — pushed him over the edge.
What happened after everyone returned to the van, Lindiwe said, was a mystery. Mandla himself recalled almost nothing. Eight-year-old Khaya, the only one of Mandla’s children capable of describing the scene, did not remember him making any threats. Patrick and Adam may have misunderstood what they heard, Lindiwe ventured, or they may have exaggerated out of anger. She handed me a sheaf of letters from friends and colleagues attesting to Mandla’s gentleness, moral uprightness and professional competence. The crash, she said, must have been the result of a blackout — a product not of deadly malice but of brain cells starved for fuel.
“What I know of my husband,” Lindiwe said, “is that he would never hurt himself. He would never hurt his children. He probably whacked Patrick on the butt with his cane to keep moving, but that’s a cultural thing. If you told that to somebody in South Africa, they’d say, ‘So what? That’s what we do.’ ”
On the phone from jail, swinging from the particulars of his case to grand generalities about colonialism and comparative religion, Mandla could sound like a multicultural mystic, a Pan-Africanist visionary, a pop psychologist or a bitter veteran of the Hollywood rat race. Mostly, he sounded like a man who had seldom felt at home, in his own country or elsewhere.
Born Walter Mandlakayise Dube Jr. in Mabopane on March 25, 1971, he was the fourth of five children. South Africa was in the full grip of apartheid in those days, and blacks were officially fourth-class citizens (after whites, Indians and mixed-race “coloreds”), forced to live in segregated townships or arid “homelands.” But Mandla grew up relatively privileged, and isolated from his poorer peers. His father was one of a handful of blacks granted a license to trade in diamonds; although apartheid restrictions limited the scope of that business, he also owned shops, a gas station and a restaurant. The family had a TV set — “Everyone in the neighborhood used to come and watch it,” Mandla said — and Walter Sr. drove a BMW.
Mandla’s father traveled to the United States frequently, and he brought back mind-expanding souvenirs: recordings of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, films about the Black Panthers. The family home doubled as a safe house for the anti-apartheid underground. Yet Mandla’s childhood was also steeped in African tradition. His grandfather taught him the Zulu credo, Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu: “A human being is human through others.” Mandla’s uncle was a shaman, and when the toddler had trouble learning to speak, his parents brought in folk healers to free his tongue.
Their rituals may have worked too well: As Mandla grew older, his father told me over the phone from Pretoria, “He used to question everything. When you try and tell him, he says, ‘No, this is my opinion. I think this way.’ ” The elder Dube joined the Zion Christian Church when Mandla was about 10, and the family followed him. But at 13, Mandla was sent off to a nearby Anglican boarding school, St. Alban’s, one of the rare white schools that admitted a few black students. He found the experience deeply unsettling. The teachers were condescending, his classmates cold, and the venerable British tradition of upperclassmen sexually exploiting younger boys repelled him. His grades suffered, and when he was 15, his parents dispatched him to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where his older brother Sipho was attending college. After Mandla finished high school, he enrolled at Clark Atlanta University, where he majored in film and communications. “He was dedicated, clear about what he wanted to do,” said a former schoolmate, Glenn Gray.
At Clark, Mandla also met Lindiwe Mzimela, a South African émigré who had lived in the United States since she was 4. Together, they searched for spiritual grounding, in such disparate realms as yoga, Egyptian metaphysics and Native American religion. The pair married after graduating in 1993, and three years later resettled in South Africa, where a peaceful revolution had just overturned the white-minority power structure. It was a heady time. Lindiwe’s father, an Anglican priest, had joined Nelson Mandela’s government as minister of prisons. (He later fell out of favor and moved back to Atlanta.) Lindiwe became media coordinator for a political party. Mandla set up a production company, and was quickly hired by Sony Music to shoot Masekela’s video. He made TV commercials and a government PSA on domestic abuse. He helped draft a constitution for the new national filmmakers’ organization. In 1997, he even attended the Cannes Film Festival.
But his resumé did not translate into prosperity. South Africa’s film industry was still run by a white old-boy network, and it was hard for an outsider to make a living. Money grew even tighter when Lindiwe quit her job to care for the kids. To supplement their income, the couple collected cans for recycling. Their modest house was broken into twice. A cousin was killed in a gang shooting. The trip to Cannes was such a surreal contrast that Mandla freaked out and slapped a Frenchwoman when she touched his back ?at a party.
Back in Mabopane, there was a third break-in, and Mandla fought off the burglars with his fists. He decided to apply to AFI. In practical terms, he hoped to boost his career prospects. But he also dreamed of directing documentaries on the ills of his tortured nation. “How can one be acquiring these skills,” he asked himself, “and expect not to give back to a country that has gone through so much?”
Mandla’s intention to return to South Africa (and his general anti-authoritarianism) helps explain why he didn’t bother trying to renew his visa after graduating from AFI in 2002; from that moment, he was an illegal alien. Yet he was not quite ready to fly home. He wanted to come back with some accomplishments under his belt, not as a homeless man with a fancy degree. He also felt a duty toward Lindiwe, who had shouldered all domestic responsibilities while he focused on school. She hoped to revive the acting career that she had begun in South Africa, and L.A. seemed the best place to start.
Instead, the Dubes soon found themselves even worse off than they had been in Mabopane. Hoping for a big break, Mandla took unpaid internships on high-budget films. “People would say, ‘Where do you stay?’ ” he told me. “I’d answer, ‘In Malibu.’ ‘But where in Malibu?’ ‘In a tent!’ ” On The Italian Job, he chatted in Afrikaans with fellow expat Charlize Theron, and discussed a possible PSA on autism with Mark Wahlberg. But when he asked the producer for a small stipend, he said, ?he was turned down.
Lindiwe wasn’t doing too well either. Profoundly depressed, she was medicating herself with Xanax and Nyquil. In the winter of 2002, after coming down with an infection, she decided to cleanse herself by fasting. Her health improved so dramatically that Mandla soon took up the practice. Fasting produced euphoria, but it had deeper rewards as well. It seemed to turn their poverty into something holy; they were emulating not only their Zulu ancestors, who fasted as part of their ritual cycle, but also the prophet Isaiah, who did it “to loose the bands of wickedness . . . and to let the oppressed go free.” Mandla and Lindiwe found further spiritual succor at the Agape International Spiritual Center, a New Age megachurch in Culver City. They attended sweat-lodge rituals on an Indian reservation in El Centro. But by the end of 2003, the couple were on the verge of divorcing.
“I never felt that Mandla put us first,” Lindiwe said. “He’s always had a heart for the masses, but in that you lose the heart for your family.”
It took a marathon of fasting and praying and sweating to resolve the crisis. “We just gave it up to God. Things really turned around for us after that. They were moving forward. It’s strange how everything can finally be on the right path, and then this happens.”
In Africa, a court might have viewed Mandla’s smashup differently — not as a crime of passion, but as an initiation rite gone wrong. “Once he explained the circumstances, they would have understood,” said his Ghanaian-born lawyer, Nana Gyamfi. “ ‘Okay, you were in a trance state.’ They would have admonished him: ‘How are you training other people, when you’re not clear yourself?’ ” The case would have been a civil one, she said, resolvable with an apology and a payment to the injured boy’s family. In Los Angeles, however, a harsher set of rules applied.
Four months, an eternity in jail, would pass before Mandla received even a preliminary hearing. In part, the delay was his doing. After his arrest, he was assigned a public defender but switched to a private attorney. That lawyer ordered a psychologist’s report, but before it could be filed, Mandla fired him. “We didn’t trust him,” Lindiwe told me. (The attorney declined to comment on their falling-out, but said, “I thought he had a decent case.”) Mandla eventually hired Gyamfi, whose South-Central–based firm, the Human Rights Advocacy Community Law Office, often handles controversial cases involving immigrants. She was just beginning to hunt for expert witnesses and prepare a strategy.
Key to Mandla’s defense, said Gyamfi, would be a doctrine known as “legal unconsciousness,” which posits that a defendant in a profoundly altered state of consciousness — one not caused by drug abuse or other intentional means — cannot be held responsible for certain crimes. In an attempted-murder case, “You have to be able to show specific intent to kill,” said Gyamfi, a portly woman with dreadlocks and gold-rimmed glasses. The issue was whether Mandla’s frightening words had any literal meaning. “Yes, he allegedly said, ‘I’m going to kill you all,’ but given his mental state, how much credence do you give that?”
Meanwhile, Lindiwe was fighting a desperate bureaucratic battle: The Department of Child and Family Services asked her to sign a permanent restraining order barring Mandla from contact with the kids, and when she refused, social workers allegedly threatened to revoke her custody as well. (The DCFS supervisor in charge of the case refused to comment for this article, and others involved did not return phone calls.) The department backed off only when it became clear that Mandla wouldn’t be coming home anytime soon, but the matter remained ?unresolved.
Mandla was experiencing his own tribulations in the Los Angeles County penal system. For a spiritual seeker concerned with bodily purity, jailhouse meals were a torment. One lunchtime, he urged his comrades to boycott the grub — “This is not healthy,” he shouted — and was thrown up against a wall by an offended deputy. Soon afterward, a cellmate craving a cigarette disabled a smoke alarm; since no one would squeal, the guards stripped half a dozen men to their underwear and shoved them into a cell designed for two. “We’re in there, it’s freezing, for 18, 19 hours,” Mandla said later. “No food, nothing to drink, the toilet doesn’t work. I say to the guard, ‘Let me out! I’ve got my hemorrhoids going here!’ He says to me, ‘Maybe if you’d stop landing on so many dicks, you’d be all right.’ ” Mandla laughed incredulously.
He finally got his preliminary hearing one afternoon in November, in the fortresslike courthouse across from City Hall. Lindiwe and about a dozen friends and supporters — classmates from AFI, aspiring directors for whom Mandla had shot commercial reels, a grandmotherly South African woman who ran an HIV/AIDS charity — sat in the courtroom. Mandla was led out of the holding pen in shackles and a blue jump suit, and seated at a long table. His angular face, set off by a sparse goatee, was tense as 16-year-old Patrick took the stand.
A slim, refined-looking boy in a black sweater and slacks, the younger Masekela stepson seemed reluctant to rehash the events of July 3; he hunched in his seat and spoke in a subdued monotone. At first, he said, Mandla had been ebullient, greeting his guests with hugs and singing the South African national anthem as he drove. But when they reached the park, his mood changed. As the group hiked uphill, Mandla began chanting wildly and running in circles. He rolled down a small cliff. Then he stood, pointed at each of the boys, and said, “I am sorry, I’m going to have to kill you, you, you, you. You're going to come back as rats.” Later, as they headed down the switchbacks in the van, Mandla repeated, this time in a whisper, “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to kill you. I’m sorry.”
If that’s what he intended, he didn’t go about it very efficiently. Deputy District Attorney Stephanie Mire, a veteran of the child-abuse department, asked Patrick to estimate how fast the car was going when it went off the road. “About 20 miles an hour,” he said, adding, “I didn’t see him push down on the accelerator.”
Following the testimony, Gyamfi filed a motion for dismissal of the attempted murder charges and reduction of the child-abuse charges to misdemeanors. Considering the irrationality of Mandla’s words and actions, she argued, it was clear that he’d been too addled to form a specific intent. “This really appears to be a car accident that someone has while in a particular mental state,” she said. “This does not seem to be something that is willfully done.”
Mire countered, “What we understand is that he said ‘I’m going to kill you’ and proceeded to engage in behavior that would accomplish that goal.”
When Judge Jane Godfrey denied the defense motion, Gyamfi requested a reduction of bail, citing Mandla’s family and community ties. Godfrey nixed that as well, maintaining that his foreign citizenship made him a flight risk. Mandla was led away again, and his supporters filed into the hall. They clustered around Lindiwe, who was wearing a tan coatdress painted with the slogan “Set the captives free” and sobbing quietly. “Mandla always says at times like this, you’ve got to put stones in your stomach,” she said, attempting a smile. “I’ve got so many stones, I don’t know what to do with them.”
Lindiwe needed all the ballast she could get. When she got home, she found a padlock on the door; behind on her rent, she had been evicted yet again. She and the boys spent several weeks in a fleabag motel, until they were rescued by her older sister Nomusa, who arrived from Atlanta with her own three children. The families moved together into an apartment in Crenshaw.
By now, Mandla was in a new jail, the Wayside facility in Saugus. He led his fellow inmates in prayer circles; murderers and rapists confessed their childhood sorrows, he said, and wept in his arms. But it was harder for his family to visit him there, and as he learned of their troubles, he felt increasingly desperate. Through the fall and winter, the wheels of justice barely turned. The case was assigned to a new judge, Marcia Revel, and there were more hearings, but neither the prosecution nor the defense attorneys felt ready to go to trial. “You don’t want to go in unprepared,” Gyamfi said. “If the bullet doesn’t miss you entirely, it tends to kill you.”
By early February, the defense’s psych report was in hand. Submitted by USC forensic psychiatrist Kaushal K. Sharma, who had visited Mandla in jail, it was a relatively encouraging document. “The defendant’s behavior at the time of the . . . crime is consistent with a person who was having a psychotic episode,” Sharma wrote. Despite Mandla’s alleged statements to his passengers, the psychiatrist continued, “the defendant does meet the criteria for legal unconsciousness given the fact that his behavior was unlike his usual behavior and he had nothing to gain by his actions. He had no animosity towards his children or towards his two guests.”
Sharma also noted, however, that Mandla admitted to smoking marijuana on occasion, and that at the time of his arrest his blood had tested positive for THC. “It appears unlikely that the defendant’s behavior can be explained on the basis of marijuana use alone,” Sharma wrote, citing Mandla’s insistence that he had not gotten high for several days before the crash. (Tests cannot establish when a user took his last toke.) But he declined to speculate on what other factors might have been at work. Gyamfi hoped to find an expert who could fill in those blanks, and the prosecution wanted to commission its own psych report.
There may in fact be a scientifically plausible, drug-free explanation for Mandla’s bizarre behavior in Griffith Park, as I later discovered during an Internet search. During World War II, a University of Minnesota scientist named Dr. Ancel Keys (inventor of the K-Ration) wanted to know how food shortages might affect populations in the battle zone, so he put 36 volunteers on a semistarvation diet for six months. The results of the Minnesota Experiment, as it came to be called, were shocking. Many participants experienced hyperirritability and a feeling of dissociation from reality. Some were consumed with aggressive urges. One developed suicidal impulses and had to be hospitalized. Another chopped off three of his own fingers.
Similar symptoms, as well as auditory hallucinations and megalomaniac and persecutory delusions, were later reported among crash dieters and anorexics. UCLA biological anthropologist Daniel M.T. Fessler, who has applied these findings to the study of religious mystics and hunger strikers, theorizes that disrupted serotonin levels are to blame. And when I spoke to him about Mandla’s episode, Fessler thought it sounded eerily familiar. “That’s right there in the literature, that kind of behavior,” he said. Mandla’s five-day fast might have been enough to unleash years of pent-up anger in a psychotic burst.
If the defense psychologist was aware of this, however, he didn’t mention it. And so the hearings wore on. Mandla began attempting to make speeches about his right to a speedy trial. “Your honor, may I say something?” he would commence, only to be silenced by Judge Revel, a sharp-featured woman with a beehive hairdo. She also admonished him to stop mouthing “I love you” to his wife in the visitors’ gallery.
The judge had a beef with Lindiwe and her coterie as well. “The last time you were here, the whole court reeked of incense,” she said one morning. “Would you stand in the back of the courtroom so my staff doesn’t get sick?” When Gyamfi asked if the group could sit on the last bench instead, Revel assented. Lindiwe — who was, in fact, wearing an African-style scented oil — resettled herself with her friends. But when the hearing ended, they burst into the hall with a flurry of comments that may be aptly described by the phrase “contempt of court.”
Nine months after the Griffith Park outing, Deputy D.A. Mire indicated to Mandla’s lawyer that she might consider a plea bargain, once her psychiatric expert had weighed in. Shortly afterward, the DCFS dropped its demand that Lindiwe sign a restraining order. But there were further complications. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had placed an immigration hold on Mandla, citing his expired visa; when the prosecutors finished with him, if he didn’t go to prison, he would be remanded to DHS custody.
Mandla, meanwhile, was pressing Gyamfi to demand a trial date. He had spent 25 days in the “hole,” a two-man punishment cell, for allegedly sassing a guard. He had not held his children in nearly a year. He was at the end of his rope, and he was driving his lawyer toward the end of hers. “Every morning,” Gyamfi said, “I’m waking up thinking about Mandla Dube before I think about getting a glass of water.”
Gyamfi, however, was not sure she could get more by going to trial than by waiting for an offer from Mire. The one academic expert she knew of who could testify convincingly on the cultural aspects of the case was out of the country, and she had not yet found an acceptable replacement. (Mandla’s father was paying his legal fees, and would eventually pour about $7,500 into his son’s defense.) And even if she could win acquittal on attempted murder, there were the child-abuse charges to contend with.
The turning point came on May 16 when the prosecution’s psych report was finally entered into evidence. The report, by Beverly Hills psychologist Hy Malinek, was distinctly unfavorable. Malinek stressed the presence of THC in Mandla’s blood; he suggested that marijuana intoxication, “in combination with sleep deprivation and protracted fast, induced a rather significant and debilitating change in his mental state.” Since that change was caused by voluntary intoxication, the defense of legal unconsciousness did not apply. Moreover, Mandla’s behavior during his interview, and the results of his psychological tests, struck Malinek as evidence of a “paranoid style” that was “part of a long-term and characterological makeup.” Mandla’s very suspicion of those tests, and his complaints against the discrimination he felt he had suffered in South Africa and the United States, counted against him.
After reading the report, Gyamfi conferred with Mire. Then she huddled with Lindiwe in the back of the oak-paneled courtroom. Despite the harshness of Malinek’s comments, Gyamfi said, the prosecution knew that a trial would not be a slam-dunk. Mire had offered to reduce the charges to a single count of felony child endangerment. Mandla would be sentenced to time served, plus five years’ probation. Since the DHS would almost certainly ship him back to South Africa, the terms of his probation would be essentially unenforceable. The conviction was expungeable from the record once probation was completed, which meant Mandla could apply for re-entry to the U.S. without being rejected as a felon. Gyamfi gave Lindiwe a moment to absorb the information.
“It’s on Mandla,” Lindiwe said. “Tell him that whatever decision he makes, I’ll stand by him, but he’s got to make the decision himself.”
That afternoon, Mandla pleaded no contest to child endangerment and answered “yes” to a long list of “do you understands?” — that he was giving up the right to a trial by his peers, that he must undergo drug counseling and parenting classes, that he must keep his probation officer informed of his whereabouts. Then came the hard part. Mire declared that she was issuing a five-year protective order barring Mandla from contact with his sons, and Judge Revel spelled it out for him: “If you come within 100 yards of your children, you will go to prison. If you speak with them on the phone, you will go to prison.”
Although Gyamfi had assured him that the order would be moot once the family left the country, Mandla scratched his beard compulsively as he agreed to the terms. Lindiwe gave a bitter laugh, then went back to staring at nothing, her fists clenched in her lap. When it was over, she and her husband exchanged an agonized glance before he dragged his chains out of the courtroom for the last time. “And so we go,” Lindiwe said. “From one jail to another.”
Indeed, it was too soon to begin planning any reunions. Mandla was transferred to the DHS detention center in San Pedro, where he spent another four months waiting for immigration officials to process his case. Compared to Wayside, the facility was comfortable at least, with friendlier guards and cosmopolitan inmates. He seemed content with the case’s outcome. “I will take responsibility that I should have been under supervision when I went into this fast,” he told me. “I did do wrong.” He had also learned, he said, that a person “can really fall by letting anger get to him. The next time I get angry, I need to take a deep breath and walk away.”
Lindiwe was less philosophical. She felt betrayed by the legal system, by Gyamfi, even by Mandla. “If it was me, I would have said, ‘Forget the deal, we’re going to trial. Take a stand.’ The system has worn him down. It’s like I really lost my husband July 3.”
Still, she said she planned to join him in South Africa after his return. And even Hugh Masekela said he would welcome Mandla back. “I don’t think that if he was fasting and not feeling good, he had a right to be driving around with my kids and his kids,” Masekela said over his cell phone from a highway north of Johannesburg. “But I don’t wish any harm on him. I hope that he can come home and maybe get some help.”
Mandla came home five years to the day after he left for Los Angeles. His father and siblings met him at Johannesburg International Airport, and he settled back into the old house in Mabopane. For the first few days, he said, he had trouble getting out of bed. “I didn’t realize how tired I was.” Then he started looking for a job.
He found one recently, teaching camera technique at Wits University in Johannesburg. Every morning, he rises at 4 o’clock, meditates, and takes a jog around his neighborhood, on the dirt road bordering rail yards and a shantytown. Then he begins his two-hour commute to the city. He is working on a dozen projects — a documentary on the first president of the African National Congress; another on the history of the South African diamond industry; an upcoming trip to Thailand for a conference on the impact of technology on indigenous peoples. “I’m starting to slowly climb out of a miserable time,” he says, “just slowly climbing out.” But when he comes home in the evening, he is alone.
The legalities of bringing Lindiwe and the kids over turned out to be more complex than Mandla was led to believe; the authorities in L.A., he says, plan to ask their counterparts in South Africa to enforce the terms of the protective order. (The DCFS’s legal counsel, Anne-Lin Yeh, declined to comment.) He has had endless conversations with the child-welfare people back in L.A., to little avail.
Lindiwe, meanwhile, has stopped answering her phone or responding to his e-mails. “It’s been at least three months,” Mandla says. “I don’t know where she is, to tell you the truth. I think she’s upset, and just . . . just quiet.”
Lindiwe doesn’t want to talk, period. When contacted, she responds with a terse e-mail saying, “The only purpose this story can serve at this late date is to demonstrate how this system has destroyed yet another ?Black family.”
At night in Mabopane, Mandla lies in his bed and stares at the ceiling. “Lindi and the children come to mind,” he says, “and I wonder, ‘When is this saga going to end?’ ” He tries to remain optimistic. “It will come to an end, I’m pretty positive. Right now, I’m focusing on work and getting back on my feet. We were uncomfortable for a while. When they come home, I want them to be comfortable.”