His crime was almost unspeakably cruel: In 2011, high school principal Manono Makhaphela ordered two janitors to bury Lily, a disabled stray dog, alive for "being a nuisance." After serving out his punishment, however, the convicted animal abuser claims to have finally seen the light.
"It is hard to explain but I took the suffering of animals – dogs, chickens, pigs – for granted," Makhaphela told South African news site News 24 this week. "I realize now that animals have a life to live as well."
It's taken the 45-year-old Cape Town man four long years to come to this revelation. Former Luhlaza High School janitor Poto Mfengu testified that Makhaphela ordered him to "get rid" of Lily in October of 2011 after she made a mess of one of the classrooms.
Mfengu said he initially planned to take the malnourished stray — who was lame in her back legs and would drag herself around the school grounds — outside the school's gates, but the principal insisted he dig a hole and bury the dog.
"I never wanted to do what I did," the janitor would later tell Independent Online. "I was desperate to keep my job."
Thankfully, the school's kitchen cleaner called the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)'s Mdzananda Animal Clinic to rescue the dog after a colleague witnessed the live burial. By the time clinic workers managed to dig Lily out from the 5-foot-deep hole, she had been underground for at least 20 minutes.
After extensive rehabilitation by Mdzananda staff, including weekly hydrotherapy and acupuncture, the once-starving dog was able to recover from her near-death experience.
And, miraculously, Lily even regained the use of her legs.
"When she was rescued she was partially paralyzed. Her back was broken in two places," journalist Helen Walne, who adopted Lily, told Independent Online. "Now she's recovered completely."
In the aftermath of the incident, both the janitors and the kitchen cleaner whose call saved Lily lost their jobs, but Makhaphela kept his — despite being found guilty of two counts of animal cruelty and one count of causing an animal unnecessary harm.
At his sentencing, Makhaphela was ordered to pay a fine of just ZAR3,000 (about $200) and to start an animal protection awareness program at his school. That program, hosted by the Humane Education Trust, was finally carried out last month.
"This project made me understand that even if an animal is not yours, it deserves life," said Makhaphela. "I was closed off but I see dogs now that are hungry and need help. There is a connection."
Animal advocates have ample reason to doubt Makhaphela's sincerity. The principal was told to implement the program by July of 2013, but it wasn't put into effect until this year, when the principal was jailed for disobeying the judge's order after being reported by the Mdzananda Animal Clinic.
Humane Education Trust founder Louise van der Merwe, however, believes the principal is now taking animal welfare at the school seriously.
"At the end of the day, one can say it's just words," Van der Merwe told News24. "But when I handed in this report, Mr Mak said to me: 'Louise, that dog did nothing to me.' If I reached him, it's in those words."