‘I’ve paid my dues, I am stronger and I have changed my ways for the better.”
These were the words of Joeleene Phillips, 24, a Durban woman who arrived at OR Tambo International airport on Wednesday morning after serving almost three years in a Brazilian prison.
Phillips arrived in Joburg at 7.30am via a direct flight from Sao Paulo. The Daily News accompanied her mother, Belinda Lange, to OR Tambo International for the emotional reunion.
Lange, speaking on the flight to Johannesburg, became tearful as she tried to envisage what her daughter might look like after prison.
“The only image of Joeleene in my head is the picture she posted last Christmas of her in a white T-shirt, glasses and red lipstick. I don’t even know what colour her hair is; she’s always changing her hair,” said Lange.
We approached the international arrival terminal at 7:20 and Lange’s eyes welled with tears again as she saw the word “landed” flashing in red next to Phillips’s flight details on the information board.
She stood right at the front of the terminal, anxiously scanning every face through the sliding doors.
Forty-five minutes later and Lange was still standing in the same spot, clutching the railing.
“Now I’m impatient. Joeleene does not even know that I am meeting her here.
“I told her someone will take her to Durban and I’ll see her there. This is a surprise for her,” she said.
More than 90 minutes after the arrival time, Lange spots a spectacled red-head in a red and black jacket, jeans and takkies, and she shouts: “It’s Joeleene!”
With tears in her eyes and a smile on her face, a surprised Phillips embraced her mother. The mother and daughter stood for a few moments just holding each other and wiping each other’s tears.
The tears were barely dried and Joeleene proceeded to tell her mom the reasons for her delay.
Phillips said she had not been told that she had to have a vaccination for yellow fever before she could be cleared at immigration.
“I’m upset with the Brazilian authorities. The vaccine cost R600 and I had no money.
“Thankfully, another Brazilian paid for me,” she said.
Laughing, her mother said she had “not changed a bit – still complaining!”
As the mother-daughter reunion continued, Phillips shared her experiences in prison, her plans for the future, her sense of remorse and her yearning for her children.
In 2006 Phillips was arrested at the Guarulhos International Airport in Brazil for drug trafficking. She was found with 3kg of cocaine in her bag.
According to reports, she claimed she did not know that there were drugs in her bag and believed she had been set up by her Nigerian boyfriend, the father of her two children.
She now admits that she knew, and is remorseful.
The case of drug trafficking took a heart-wrenching turn on November 2, 2006 when Phillips gave birth to her second son, Tyran Joe, in the Penitenciaria Feminina prison where she was awaiting sentence. Phillips was four months pregnant when she was arrested.
Phillips’s anguish at being thousands of kilometres away from her family, including her then 17-month-old son, Roland, increased when she was told she only had six months with her son.
She was told that he would be placed in an institution if no family member claimed him.
That was when her mother approached Independent on Saturday to help her raise funds to bring her grandson back home.
Her plea was successful and Tyran Joe was taken from his mother in prison at just four months old and placed in his grandmother’s custody.
Phillips’s biggest concern had been for her baby to be placed in the care of her mother.
She served her sentence and in March 2009 she was released on parole. Barely a week ago, she was told she was going to be deported.
Reflecting on her stay in prison, Phillips said: “I kept to myself and didn’t talk too much to any of the police officers. If the other prisoners see you talking to the police they threaten you.
“I had chores to do every day and I took every opportunity so the sentence would go faster.”
Phillips said she had shared a cell with Tessa Beetge, another South African in prison on drug-trafficking charges.
Beetge made headlines earlier this year because of her links to Sheryl Cwele, the wife of the then national intelligence minister, Siyabonga Cwele.
“Tessa and I were close; we would write letters and watch TV together,” Phillips said.
According to Phillips, there are more South Africans in Brazil prisons than there are Brazilians. “The South Africans are taking over the Brazil prisons,” she said.
According to the latest statistics released by the Saps Narcotics Bureau, more than 660 South Africans are in prison on drug-related charges, with half of them being held in South American prisons.
“The prison is fairly peaceful because we are not allowed to fight.”
She said she had got a job at the prison, cleaning the main gates and working in the kitchen.
Out on parole, she stayed at what she called “a safe house” for foreigners.
“They provided me with food and a place to sleep, but I had to look for a job.”
She worked as a housemaid.
While on parole, Phillips also completed a manicure course. “Joeleene always had a flair for hair and beauty treatments,” her mother says.
Over a cup of coffee while awaiting the flight back to Durban, Phillips said: “I do have regrets about what I did. If I could change things, I would. But I can’t. It’s now time to move on.”
She said she was looking forward to the next chapter of her life.
Phillips admitted that she was not proud of what she had done and said she knew many people had lost faith in her.
She responded to the criticism and judgement that will most probably come her way by saying: “Everyone deserves a second chance. I’ve made my mistake, I’ve learnt from it and I’ve paid for what I have done and now it’s bola para frente (a Portuguese saying which roughly translates as ‘but we’ve got to look forward’).”
She said the pain that she was put through and being away from her family made her very angry. “It was unfair for me to take the fall by myself.”
After initially claiming that she had been set up by her Nigerian boyfriend, Phillips admitted that she had been aware that she was transporting drugs.
She said that when she was arrested, she had SMSed her boyfriend to tell him what had happened.
“He knew that I was pregnant. His response was ‘Oh s***!’ and that was it.”
She said she had never heard from him after that.
Phillips was adamant that she would not let him have anything to do with the children.
“The only good thing that he brought into my life is my two children.”
Phillips said her short-term plan would be to get a job and her long-term plan was to be a proper mother to her children.
“I’ll never leave my children again. If I do leave, I will take them with me.”
Her other plans include helping others not to make the same mistakes she did.
She said: “I would like to visit schools, talk to the youth and warn them about the dangers of being involved in the drug industry.
“I am committed to changing my life.”
Driving down Umgeni Road on the way to her home to be re-united with her sons, she commented on how nothing had changed in Durban.
But one thing about her had changed: “When I was in South Africa I didn’t like soccer, but once I got to Brazil they converted me into a true football fan.”
Her mother said: “I’m so glad she’s home. The nightmare is over and we can now start a new chapter.”
This article was originally published on page 15 of Daily News on October 15, 2009