Husband desperate for justice after stone hurled by robbers kills academic en route to CT International Airport
Leonie van der Westhuizen’s husband, also an academic, says he still hasn’t been interviewed by the police after they were ambushed en route to Cape Town International Airport on 26 March, and a stone shattered the car window.
It has been three weeks since Leonie van der Westhuizen (69) died after the attack – when the stone struck her in the head, triggering cardiac arrest – and her husband Gert is desperately looking for answers.
Talking to Daily Maverick, Gert described how the nightmare unfolded on 26 March.
The Centurion couple, who had been married for almost 50 years, were on their way to the Cape Town International Airport at about 4.50pm after having stayed in Kalk Bay. They drove down the M22, which turned into the M18 New Eisleben Road, and stopped on the corner of New Eisleben and Sithandatu roads in Nyanga, according to a Cape Town Central Police Station report. A group of young men attacked the car by shattering the car window with the stone.
Gert told Daily Maverick: “The stone hit our car on Leonie’s side… The stone hit her on the head and then I saw an arm reach in and grab her cellphone. I tried to hold the cellphone, but then I just let it go and had to find medical emergency service immediately.”
The attack occurred just more than 3km from the airport and mere blocks from the notorious crime stretch of road known as “Hell’s Run” on the N2 highway. The couple were directed by Google Maps because their planned route via the M5 was closed. There were no warnings of a higher crime risk.
Once Gert let go of the phone, his only objective was to get away from the scene and to a hospital.
“I held Leonie up with my left arm and I left, nearly bumping into several cars. I had to get to a doctor or hospital so she could be treated,” he said.
After yelling out the window for help, “I drove another kilometre and turned around. I saw hospital signs and people telling me ‘follow us’. So I followed them and they took me right to the Gugulethu Health Centre.”
In the hysteria of the moment, Gert was led by passenger cars on two separate occasions to navigate unfamiliar roads to the health centre. When he lost track of the first guiding car, another emerged instantly to guide him. The entire drive took 10 to 15 minutes.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Cape Town communities are at war – what will it take to stop the senseless shootings?
The impact from the stone led to immediate loss of consciousness and Leonie suffered cardiac arrest. She was resuscitated at the health centre and taken by ambulance to Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital in Cape Town, where she remained in ICU after scans revealed a massive, inoperable haemorrhage.
The Van der Westhuizen family emphasised that the staff, in particular Professor Mark Nicol from the University of Cape Town Medical School, were vital in keeping hope alive for Leonie.
However, she died in the hospital two days later.
Leonie was a senior lecturer at Centurion Akademie, specialising in early childhood development, and had also been working towards her PhD. Gert is professor emeritus of education at the University of Johannesburg.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Spate of shootings in Cape Town linked to political, gang and construction mafia elements
A police report was filed at the SAPS Cape Town Central Station on 28 March, the day his wife died. Gert said that weeks after the initial statement he had to request an investigation progress report over the phone.
“I’ve not been interviewed about what happened. An investigating officer has now been appointed and he is in communication with the family. We are hopeful that the perpetrators will be identified, captured and brought to justice. This is a murder case.”
Road violence ‘common’
Underreported road violence is common in Cape Town, according to Marc Volker of the Safe N2 Project.
“Whether the statistics actually get compiled on the South African Police Service side, that is where the major issue is,” he explained.
The Safe N2 Project’s goal is to accumulate all instances of largely underreported street crime in the Western Cape and warn project members of potential road threats. An area of particular interest is “Hell’s Run”, the stretch of N2 road and surrounding streets between Somerset West and Cape Town International Airport. This was near where the Van der Westhuizens were attacked.
The Nyanga police station recorded an 18.5% increase in “serious crime reports” from October 2022 to December 2022, with 1,557 cases reported. This is according to the SAPS Quarter Three Crime Report. This police station receives the most reports of robbery with aggravating circumstances in South Africa, according to the 2021-22 Annual Crime Report.
Mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith told Daily Maverick: “Sadly, attacks on road users have become an all too common occurrence.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: SONA 2023 – SA’s soaring murder rate underscores need for Ramaphosa to ensure better leadership in policing
Smith acknowledged that many road violence reports go unresolved, saying law enforcement needed “to play a more robust role in ensuring that suspects caught are brought before the courts, and convicted”.
“Where possible, our enforcement agencies will conduct patrols of hotspot areas, but due to the many demands on our services it is not possible to maintain a continuous static presence at any one particular spot.”
Gert and Leonie van der Westhuizen travelled from Kalk Bay to Cape Town International Airport via Baden Powell Drive and New Eisleben Road.
‘Beautiful, warm person’
The death of the accomplished academic and mother of four has elicited messages of love from around the world.
“She was a beautiful, warm and open person, a loving person. We’ve had so many people from all over the world shocked by the news. I stopped counting, but people from more than 12 countries reached out: My friends, her friends, and people from Angola, Uganda, to Norway to the US to Chile. I think it was ample evidence of a widespread response to violent acts, the consequences, and the need for justice,” said Gert.
“During our memorial people all spoke about how beautiful a life she had and all the plans she had to continue to grow and take care of our children, grandchildren and the students she worked with.”
Now, as Gert and his family await justice as they grieve, they hope Leonie’s story can help prevent similar crimes, in which the attackers, by stealing a phone, stole a life.
Police spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Malcolm Pojie confirmed the incident “at Sithandathu Street, Nyanga where an unknown man allegedly threw an object (stone) through the window of the car in which the 70-year-old victim was an occupant. The object hit her against the head, causing serious injury to her”.
“It is further reported that an unknown suspect grabbed her cellphone and ran off.
“The matter was only reported to Cape Town Central police station on 29 March 2023, where after it had been transferred to Nyanga police for further investigation as the initial incident happened in their precinct. A robbery case was opened for investigation.
“We appeal to anyone with information regarding the incident to please contact Crime Stop at 08600 10111 or the Nyanga police station.” DM