By Nqobile Tshili
He was condemned at birth to a life of hardship after being christened Mhlupheki, which is Ndebele for “the one who struggles”.
True to his name, Mhlupheki Ngwenya (47) has suffered, living a life of struggle and holding a record that no one should be proud of — being the longest-serving inmate at Khami Maximum Prison.
Dressed in white prison garb inscribed “Life” with a blue pen, Mhlupheki has been in prison for 21 years.
He was sentenced to death in 2008 for killing a man in Bulawayo’s Richmond suburb after they had an altercation on one of the darkest days in the country’s history — July 1, 1999.
This is the day when Father Zimbabwe and Vice-President Joshua Nkomo breathed his last.
The day would also change Mhlupheki’s life as he would later be incarcerated for murder.
“I’m here because of a murder that I committed in 1999 on 1 July. I had an argument with this man who was drunk and we started fighting. He stabbed me with a bottle on my arm,” he said, showing the news crew his scar.
“I drew a knife and stabbed him to death. That is how I ended up in prison,” explained the soft-spoken slim-built inmate.
Mhlupheki said at the time he lived at Mbuyazwe Village in Umguza District and was married with a child aged three.
Sadly, the child died while he was in prison and he has no idea what happened to his ex-wife.
He said in 2008 he was sentenced to death and was moved to Chikurubi Maximum Prison in Harare where he was expected to be hanged.
He narrated the trauma of thinking every day would be his last.
The anguish of hearing a cell door opening and thinking his time had come, for nine long years.
“I was sentenced to death on 9 April 2008 at the Bulawayo High Court. After that I was transferred to Harare’s Chikurubi Maximum Prison where I stayed for nine years before I made an appeal against the death sentence. On 30 July 2017 my death sentence was commuted to life in prison. This led to my transfer back to Khami Maximum Prison, because I was initially sentenced while in here,” he said.
Mhlupheki said since his imprisonment, he has lost touch with outside reality. Even cellphone technology was minimal in Zimbabwe by the time he was jailed.
“When I was imprisoned there was not much cellphone technology in the country, so I have never held a cellphone. So, things like WhatsApp messenger that you are talking about I don’t know them. It would be a new world to me if I’m to be released from prison,” said Mhlupheki.
He said his personality has changed following his long stay at the prison.
“When I was arrested, I did not know Jesus but in prison I got saved. I’m now baptised. Right now, I’m doing my secondary education, I’m supposed to register to write Ordinary Levels this year but since schools are still closed due to Covid-19 that has been halted. But I remain studying so that when schools open, I register to write my O-levels.
That is what I’m preoccupying myself with at the moment,” he said.
He said he has not lost hope that one day he would be accorded Presidential Amnesty.
“The reason why I’m studying is to have knowledge, there are a lot of technologies that have come up since my incarceration. There isn’t much I’m doing so I decided to go to school. Secondly, if I waste this period in jail and get lucky and I’m pardoned by the President, I will struggle to adjust to normal society. My only hope is to receive Presidential pardon.”
Mhlupheki said serving life in prison is more liberating than his earlier death sentence.
“Being a death row inmate was a very painful thing. The conditions are too difficult. You spend 23 hours in a solitary cell and just given an hour out of the cell just to exercise. Being in that cell psychologically kills you, if you are not strong as a death row inmate, you might fall sick or die or even lose your mind. I think it’s important to give yourself to God because alone you cannot survive.
Turning to God is how I survived all that time. But prison life is very painful, it separates you from your relatives. It takes away all the little things that you would take for granted when you are outside the cells. Everything here is regulated and even the time you go to bed. At 6 pm here we would be expected to be sleeping,” said Mhlupheki.
He said he has not seen any of his relatives in 11 years but was hoping to reunite with his uncle. However, Covid-19 has again stalled the reunion.
This is mainly due to the fact that Government banned members of the public from visiting inmates as part of the measures to mitigate against the spread of Covid-19.
Mhlupheki said he was remorseful for taking a life.
He said he was “crushingly” disappointed that he put his own family through hell as society labelled them all sorts of names due to his actions.
“Abadala bathi icala lembula ingubo lingene, so what happened is that I committed a crime without thinking. While in prison I have tried to reach out to the relatives of the man I killed to seek forgiveness. I’m also seeking forgiveness from my family because my crime also affected them. People will forever point fingers at them saying ‘your child who is a murderer’,” said Mhlupheki. The Chronicle