WATCH | Babsie Nobanda 'happy to be home' after landing at OR Tambo airport
Tears flowed at OR Tambo International Airport on Thursday as Nolubabalo “Babsie” Nobanda returned home after a eight-year stint in a Thai jail.
Nobanda, from Makhanda in the Eastern Cape, cried as she hugged family and friends.
"I'm back home," she said shortly after arriving. "I am happy to be home and I just want to thank everyone for all the support in South Africa."
In 2011, Nobanda, now 31, was caught at the Bangkok airport with 650g of cocaine mixed with baking powder woven into her dreadlocks.
She was sentenced to 30 years in prison, which was later commuted to a 15-year sentence. Her release from Bangkok's Klong Prem prison earlier this month came as a result of a prisoner amnesty granted by the Thai king.
“It's as if I'm dreaming,” said Nobanda's 18-year-old sister, Mila Ncepu, on Thursday. She went on to describe her sister's arrival as “surreal”.
“It's excitement, it's disbelief,” said Mila, who is in matric.
“The past few years have gone slowly, but the last few days have been chaotic — but in a good way.”
She said her sister would be relieved to be back in her hometown of Makhanda, getting to see the places and people she knew.
The two sisters corresponded via letters during Nobanda's incarceration.
During her incarceration, Nobanda sought to make the best of her situation by studying and teaching prison authorities English.
Henk Vanstaen, who helped her in Thailand, commented that she was ready to become a productive member of society when she returned to Mzansi, armed with a degree in communications she obtained from Unisa through long-distance learning.
Speaking to DispatchLIVE from Thailand on Thursday, Vanstaen said: “She has definitely learnt from this experience. She has come out a better person, not only in terms of getting a degree and education, but in terms of her mental strength.”
Nobanda is the fifth South African Vanstaen has helped return to the country. He has campaigned tirelessly for the government to consider prisoner transfer agreements. A huge amount of gratitude has been expressed to Vanstaen for his efforts, but he insists “no-one owes me anything”.
“I honestly don't want any recognition. I just feel if I can help people then I'm maybe making the world a better place.”
When Nobanda was not teaching her jailers or studying, she spent much of her time with a fellow drug-smuggler prisoner, Thando Pendu, from the Free State. Pendu, 33, was released and returned to SA in June after 10 years in jail in Thailand.