22 years later

How Vanessa is using her past to change lives.

April 1994 was a joyous time for millions of South Africans. The year ushered in the beginning of freedom and democracy, drawing the curtain to years of apartheid and a racist regime.

But, for Port Elizabeth-born Vanessa Goosen, the year 1994 marked the beginning of a very dark period in her life - and it had nothing to do with the historic elections of that year.

Many would remember the shocking news of the former Miss South Africa finalist’s arrest at the customs section of the Bangkok airport. At the time of her arrest, she was about to fly home from a business trip.

After searching her bags, Thai officials removed two textbooks - which her then partner had asked her to transport home for a friend of his.

“The books were full of technical drawings and heavy text which were of no interest to me and I never suspected anything odd about them. I had no reason to be suspicious as I was thinking I was doing a friend a favour,” Goosen recalls in an interview with SAnews, almost 22 years after the incident. 

Three months pregnant and 21 years old, Goosen watched as an “excited officer” slit open the hard covered back of the books, and to her horror, 1.7 kg of heroin gapes at all and sundry, and stashed inside the book cover.

“The security put a knife into the spine of the book and white powder came out. But with his broken English he then pointed to a poster in the room with the words ‘heroin is a death sentence’.

“I started crying. In my mind I kept saying this is trouble – this is prison. The fear of the unknown led me to believe that I was losing my mind,” says Goosen.

“I started having anxiety attacks and I was crying and asking them if I can make a call. What I feared most was that I was going to lose my mind. All I wanted at the time was someone to just hug me and to say it is going to be okay.”

The court gave her a death sentence which was later commuted to life. She has always maintained her innocence.

Her sentence marked the beginning of a nightmare.

“We slept on the floor; ate on the floor - basically everything was done on the floor. But the worse was the emotional struggle and fears. It took a long time for my family to find out ut where I was and that affected them emotionally.”

But what kept her going was faith,  she says.

“God gave me strength to pray, hope and fight on.”

During her time in prison, Goosen gave birth to her daughter, Felicia, on  30October 1994.

“Felicia was a ray of sunshine in my grey and dull world. She was the only thing I had and she gave me a reason to smile again.”

But her joy was short-lived as the changes in prison policy meant that children older than a year could no longer stay with their prisoner parents.

With South Africa not having a prisoner transfer agreement with any country in the world, Vanessa had to choose: send the little girl to relatives in South Africa or to a Bangkok orphanage.

“I did not want my daughter to go… I could not see myself without my daughter. But I realised that I was being selfish and prison was not a place for a child, especially as she was growing and speaking Thai and beginning to understand what’s happening around her. That’s when I realised I cannot keep her as she needed to be raised in a proper environment where she could grow up like a normal child.”

Vanessa’s best friend, Melanie Holmes and her husband, Hilton, agreed to care for her. They flew to Thailand at their expense to repatriate the child.

This was before the South African government passed the Children’s Act 38 of 2005 which calls for repatriation of distressed children from foreign countries. These include repatriation of children whose mothers are serving jail sentences in foreign countries, because of drug related crimes.

Between the period 2009 and 2016, the Department of Social Development managed to repatriate over 21 children born in correctional facilities in foreign countries.

Working with partner departments like the Department of International Relations and  social workers, the department continually visits the guardian parents of repatriated children to ensure that they are protected against any form of abuse. The children also receive social support.

After many appeals, 16 years, six months and 16 days of praying and hoping, Goosen received news that she had been granted the King’s pardon.

But three months before Goosen was released, her friend Melanie had a heart attack and died.

When she finally returned home in 2009, she had to catch up with the new culture of a democratic South Africa having left in 1994. 

“My own family were strangers. My friends were married and had  moved on. I had to learn how to use a cell-phone, how to sleep in a bed and I could not even cross a street as I would freeze. I read a lot of newspapers to get a feel of what was happening in the world. I felt like I was completely lost…like an outcast and cut out from the world.”

“I couldn’t accept my age - I could not accept it. To think I was 21 and then I was 37. I felt like I was robbed of precious years of my life.”

Most importantly, Goosen had to build a relationship with her teen daughter who was 16 when she returned.

While her relationship with now 21-year-old Felicia isn’t as perfect, the process of getting to know each other is never ending.

“We have come a long way. We are so close today. At first it was hard and I didn’t know her and she had her own expectations of what I should be like. I didn’t know how to be a mom, but tried.” 

Goosen says she now finds joy in the smallest things.

“It makes me happy that I can pick up the phone and talk to my family whenever I want to. It makes me happy that I can have a hot bath and a bed to spread out in.”

She has never been able to trace the man who gave her the books in Thailand nor her then lover.

In 2013, she decided to make her contribution to building South Africa. Even though she was never a drug user herself, she decided to start a campaign to educate South Africans about the dangers of drugs.

Today, Goosen travels far and wide using every platform possible to tell her story. Her mission is to ensure that nobody else goes through what she went through.

“My advice is, always be careful who you trust. Never take packages for someone if you do not know what is inside  it and never take short cuts because it can cost you your life.”

Vanessa also launched her biography: Drug Muled, 16 Years in a Thai Prison: The Vanessa Goosen Story.

Goosen hopes, through the book, drug users might also learn a thing or two about the life of drug traffickers and how it can rob one of their future.

“I have been there and used by the drug syndicates before. I know how they operate so I am able to send those warning signs out.” - SAnews.gov.za