SA’s Got Talent has helped this Manenberg mom find her voice to tell the world her incredible story.
On Sunday night Phoenix, whose real name is Bernadette Adams, won over the nation with her vocal performance and made it through to the finals of the e.tv reality show.
But behind her powerful voice lies the heartbreaking tale of a woman who has suffered great hardship.
In today’s article, Part 1 one of her interview with the Daily Voice, she talks about the tragic circumstances that led to her becoming a drug mule and landing up in an Italian jail.
Forty-five-year old Bernadette, the youngest of five kids, says she first started singing when she was a eight at the Catholic Church her family attended.
She left high school in Grade 10 and studied interior design at college but gave it up because “it really wasn’t for me”.
She met her husband in 1991 while working at a fish factory in Hout Bay.
“We were happy but not for long,” says the well-spoken woman, sitting in the lounge of her council flat in Manenberg.
She then worked as a welder at a car parts manufacturer in the Southern Suburbs, but it was when she took a job as a restaurant manager in the city, owned by foreign nationals, that her life took a turn for the worse.
The long hours took its toll on Bernadette’s marriage.
“It was 2001 and the day before my birthday that I found out he was cheating on me. The next day he left, on my birthday, and it was devastating,” says Bernadette.
The newly single mom worked harder to make ends meet, “begging and borrowing” from family and friends.
Soon, a friend of her boss presented her with an “opportunity to make money fast and get rich quick”.
“I was desperate, and so I heard them out,” she explains.
“They said it was medicine that I needed to take to their brother overseas.”
Her first trip was to Switzerland, and the foreigners helped pack her bags.
“When I got back, my mother asked so many questions, so I lied to her and told her it was money that the bosses owed me. She was a prayerful woman and I know she didn’t believe me,” says Bernadette.
She wouldn’t reveal the identity of her boss, only that she was paid “thousands of rands” for making the deliveries.
By the time she took the second trip to Venezuela, Bernadette knew that she was a drug mule.
“I swear I’ve never even done drugs once in my life,” she says.
“Before the third trip, my mother said to me: “Bernie, you are doing something that’s not right.”
She later wished she had listened to her mom.
While waiting at Milan airport for a connecting flight to Switzerland, she was caught with 1.5kg of cocaine in her luggage.
“They kept me in the holding cells for a few days and then I was sent to Casa Circondarial Carcere Milano prison, an all-female prison,” Bernadette says, holding back tears.
“I cried every day. I didn’t speak Italian, I had no contact with my family and for the first few months they didn’t even know what happened to me,” she adds.
She was eventually sentenced to four years in prison which was reduced to two years, according to an Italian law called Article 73.
Without family on the outside to bring her toiletries and other necessities, the mom had to make a plan to survive behind bars.
“Ek het garing gevat en jewellery gemaak. I made bangles and necklaces and then I traded it with the other female prisoners for soap, shampoo and lotion,” she explains.
Luckily this was the worst of her struggles, she notes, pointing out that she was never abused in any way.
She adds that her “prison education was harsh, but much-needed”.
She also picked up some Italian, which she needed to communicate in jail.
“Because of my Catholic upbringing, the nuns and the priests in Italy really helped me and they had contact with the nuns in Manenberg,” she says.
After about four months, she finally managed to write a letter home, to tell her shocked family of her imprisonment.
She had served 18 months of her sentence when something unexpected happened – on April 2, 2005, Pope John Paul II passed away…