It was a dark, harrowing journey that shattered numerous lives, but finally, Taliep Petersen’s children are starting to pick up the pieces, a decade after his death. Friday 16 December marked 10 years since his senseless murder, a day etched into the memories of many Capetonians.
The music and theatre icon that brought people together through exploring cultural identity, was ironically killed on the Day of Reconciliation. Tied up like an animal on the floor of his home and pleading for his life, Taliep was shot execution style; his body found lying in a pool of blood. In one of the most sensational murder trials in South Africa, his wife Najwa Petersen was convicted of his murder in the Cape High Court on 2 December 2008.
Speaking to VOC in a candid and emotional interview this week, his daughter Jawaahier Petersen recounted the traumatic days after his death, breaking the silence on what was a painful and wretched time in their lives. The lives of Taliep’s children, Natasha, Jawaahier, Aisha, Fatima, Ashur and Zainab, the daughter he shared with Najwa, has been plagued by an emotional trauma and bereavement like no other – and the journey remains a challenge.
“The dealing is very much a verb to us as every day is a different struggle and step to take in finding a direction for ourselves. Ten years is surreal, it sounds like a really long time but for the first three years we were so caught up in the trial and our lives stood still. There was no time to process the fact that this man was gone,” Jawaahier explains.
“It’s like he was kept alive to us by the constant discussion around the nature of his death. So we had to pick up the pieces there after. Najwa was sentenced in 2009 and thereafter we could breathe and close the chapter and find our way forward. It was incredibly difficult.”
Whilst grappling with the brutality of his death and the slew of rumours on who was behind it, the situation was compounded when his entire estate and assets were frozen during the states investigation of his murder.
“He died in December and school started in January, so there was no money to pay for school fees and university. We could not do anything. Our lives shifted from having a particular lifestyle to another,” says Jawaahier.
“We lived a very comfortable life in our home with domestic support staff and the next day there was nothing…access to nothing! But you have to move on and process what has happened and it continues to be a battle.”
The media frenzy
As a renowned theatre personality, it was expected that would be a huge media interest in the case. But nothing could have prepared the Petersen family for the media circus that ensured in the aftermath of Taliep’s demise. With the public scrutiny and heightened media attention around the trial, the Petersen children were exposed to an unforgiving and ruthless press.
“Right up there with actually losing my dad was the sensationalism that ensued. He died the Saturday evening and then the entire night we stood outside waiting for the body to arrive. Media upon media arrived and people asked heinous questions,” recalls Jawaahier.
“His body was still inside the house in a pool of blood and people were asking us brutal things. At one stage, we got into a bit of a scuffle with one journalist, because boundaries were crossed.”
As the public weighed in on the scandal and drama surrounding the case, the tabloid media became obsessive and vicious.
“On the Sunday morning, the day of the janaza, there were reporters in our garden. You drive to work or school and there’s another Daily Voice headline or Rek your Bek comment. I understand my dad ‘belonged to the community’ and there was this sense of ownership. But people would say things to people that you would say to someone sitting in your lounge, as if you know someone on a personal level. The community chose sides,” Jawaahier points out.
“My dad was public fodder because of the profile he has in the media and we by default also become that, something that we were not prepared for. He tried to so hard to protect us from the media attention and within an instant; we were exposed to that level of vulnerability and nakedness.”
A family divided
But it was the deceit and treachery that started to emerge during the trial that had a profound impact on all those involved. The murder divided two prominent families – disrupting any sense of normality and stability that once was.
“It was horrendous,” says Jawaahier bluntly.
“People need to understand that my mother and Najwa grew up and were very good friends from their childhood days. Najwa’s children Achmad and Suleiman grew up with us and they were always brothers to us and she was always “Aunty Najwa” to us.
So when they got married, Achmat and Sulaiman and the four of us, later Zaynab, grew up in the same house. We lived as brothers and sisters…there was no ‘step’ in our home.”
On the Sunday of the janaza, the Petersen siblings became acutely aware on whose side who belongs.
“At the centre of all of this, was the young sister we share. Gloves came off and bonds were broken that was very close before then. And now you sit on two opposite benches of the opposite sides of a court room,” says Jawaahier, with tears glistening in her eyes.
“It was heart-breaking because as much as it was a loss for us because he was our biological father, it was a loss for them as well as they grew up with this man as a father figure. And here is this woman who was a step mother figure to us. There was six months before she was arrested and we were just living in limbo not knowing how this happened. And then she gets arrested.”
Within an instant, a woman who had played such a pivotal role in their lives became the source of great despair and hurt.
“We used to salah with this woman… we used to eat with this woman. Going from being very close family, spending Labarang together and birthdays together, and now we can’t event look at it each other. It was horrendous…”
Jawaahier admits that the shocking revelations that emerged during the trial and the subsequent break down in family relations had a huge impact on their bond with their stepbrothers.
“Our relationship with our brothers will always be of a brother type relationship because they felt the grief too. Suleiman was also a victim of circumstance. While we are not all as close as we once were, we still regard him as brother figures. But it’s a very complicated dynamic that due to circumstances cannot be avoided.”
As the only child of Taliep and Najwa, Zaynab found herself displaced, physically and emotionally. Only seven years old at the time of her father’s murder, she was left deeply traumatised. With Zaynab being at the centre of a tug-of-war between the two families, her relationship with her siblings became strained.
Jawaahier says the relationship with Zaynab was a journey of “to and fro” and they soon realised they were “victims of circumstance”.
“The day he died, my dad sat in the car before we went to Canal Walk and gave each of us a directed speech. And he made us promise that we always have each other. No matter what happens, we should always support each other. Looking back now, that should’ve been our sign that something would happen to him. And that is what carried us through this,” she says.
“People will not understand how much we had to rely on each other. For two weeks after he died, we all slept next to each other on mattresses on the floor because we couldn’t be away from each other. In recent years, we have solidified our relationship and remembered that our dad bonded us. We need to stay together, as we are his legacy. His accolades means nothing if our ties were severed and we were separated. It’s only recently that we came back to that notion.”
Forgiveness and acceptance
Asked whether she would ever come face to face with her father’s killer and if there was a prospect for forgiveness, Jawaahier conceded it would be a long road to that point.
“My last contact with her [Najwa] was when I testified in the trial and I looked at her. To some degree, some of us have said forgiveness is a big term to use and blurs the lines with justification,” she says.
“Four weddings have happened, five grandchildren, 21st birthdays, graduations, first jobs, things that he [Taliep] could have been part of. Yes, it was his time, but the manner in which he left this dunya…if you think about how hard that it is for us to comprehend, then forgiveness is a big word.”
She feels the sheer brutality and callousness of her father’s death cannot be trivialised.
“We can’t escape the fact that this was a cold blooded, orchestrated, well thought out 12 months of planning to take someone’s life in a brutal manner. If you sit and think about your own loved one, and put them in that same position, think how hard it is for us to live with that reality every day,” she laments.
“But do I personally sit and think about revenge? No. I could never give someone that level of power. I would never be able to enjoy my life that Allah has given me because I have given that power to someone else.
His death remains incredibly hard. My sister got married on Saturday and it was a crying-fest. But I will not spend my life thinking about revenge and punishment. That’s Allah’s work…”
Jawaahier says she has found a level of acceptance in piecing together the questions around her father’s death but she refuses to become consumed by it.
“It already stole 10 years of our life. It took the joy and the carefreeness of our youth that we can never get back. It aged us!
“I refuse to spend every waking moment thinking about revenge and becoming consumed by blackness and toxicity. No.”
NEXT: Keeping Taliep Petersen’s legacy