OPINION | Sometimes death is the answer: How SA women pay for crimes committed against them

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Anti-GBV picket near Parliament (Supplied by Pearlie Joubert)
Anti-GBV picket near Parliament (Supplied by Pearlie Joubert)
Pearlie Joubert

The system needs to be overhauled if there is going to be justice for women who are affected by GBV and femicide, writes Sumeya Gasa.


Monday, 24 August, marked one year since the news of Uyinene Mrwetyana's death swept through the country, along with the gruesome details of the crime committed by a Post Office employee, Luyanda Botha.

The anniversary of her death came just a few days after another young woman was allegedly killed by an ex-boyfriend.

The similarities between the killing of Asithandile Zozo and that of Mrwetyana are hard to ignore.

As another women's month has drawn to a close, I am forced to reflect on how August is just as traumatic as every other month for South African women.

On 5 August, Jacana Media hosted a virtual discussion on gender-based violence. Two survivors - one, a journalist and author, the other, a model and activist - shared their experiences with a live, online audience. Their stories bore many similarities to those of other survivors. Vanessa Govender - the journalist, at first, was afraid to name her abuser, but later found the courage to do so before the discussion drew to a close. The second woman, Lerato Moloi, was allegedly raped by a well-known man in the entertainment industry. 

A few days after this discussion, the nation observed Women's Day with the usual barrage of official speeches and broadcast messaging celebrating women. However, all of this grandstanding will remain meaningless if women cannot find real justice.

Unseen threat 

In 2018, I lived in the Johannesburg Central Business District (CBD). My choice to live in an area that was notorious for being hostile to women was one that I had not taken lightly. Apart from being relatively affordable, I was researching the gentrification of the City for my Masters thesis and felt it only fitting to immerse myself in the heart of my inquiry. The building I lived in had all the security measures that are endemic with residential blocks in downtown Johannesburg.

I felt a little safer indoors than I did on the streets where muggings and sexual harassment are the order of the day. My apartment was a large, sunny bachelor pad with a bathtub. Living space and bubble baths were a tonic to my soul after long days of heartbreaking stories of evictees and constant scowling to ward off sexual predators. But one September afternoon, my familiar routine was disrupted by a threat I had not seen coming.

One day, I returned to my building on the corner of Joubert and Bree Street.

I went through the biometric security system and merely a flight of stairs away from my floor, a man stopped me to greet.

I abided and hoped it would not go any further than that. He followed me up the stairs. I stopped, unwilling to lead him to my door. He then asked me for my apartment number which I refused to give him.

"What if I was holding a gun to your head?" he said.

"Are you threatening me?" I asked, to which he responded by saying he simply wishes to talk to me.

"Well, I don't want to talk to you," I said.

He grew visibly angry and responded with, "I didn’t expect those words to come out of your mouth. You really hurt my feelings, you fucking bitch". I stood there, gobsmacked, as he stormed off.

READ | Opinion: The fight against GBV starts with women empowering themselves

I walked on to my room, taken aback, and left my backpack and camera kit before heading back out. I made my way to the security guard and reported the incident. Not much came of that except a brief scribble made in the "occurrences book" by the building manager.

The next day, I relayed the incident to my colleagues at the time and one of them, Carolyn Raphaely, accompanied me to the police station. We reported the matter and were told that I had to go to Family Court to apply for a protection order.

When we went to the Family Court, I was told that my assailant (whose name I later found out to be Itumeleng) had to threaten me at least five times in order for them to issue a protection order. The gentleman that was conveying this to me, also said that I need to have prove it, such as a text message from Itumeleng threatening to shoot me.

He insisted this condition was important even after I repeatedly told him that I did not give Itumeleng my number on account of the fact that he threatened me with gun violence. Unsuccessful and dejected, we left the court and returned to the office.

Meanwhile, I started experiencing severe anxiety despite being on medication to combat my anxiety and depression. I was constantly afraid that I would bump into Itumeleng at the foyer of my building when returning from work.

Worst of all, I couldn't enjoy my night baths as the image of him barging in with a gun in hand eroded its way into everything I did in the room that used to be my sanctuary in the middle of a concrete jungle.

One night, I fainted while filling boiling water into a hot water bottle. I came to several minutes later and slowly realised what had happened when I saw a pool of water, my kettle and hot water bottle scattered across the tiled floor. By then, the water had cooled.

On top of this, the building manager (we will call her Khensani) accused me of being a problem tenant because I had previously refused to entertain men who would harass me in the building. Before Itumeleng, a man had blocked my way out of the building because I did not want to give him my number. Khensani then decided that I simply had a problem with men speaking to me and angrily told me so.

After a long battle to be relieved from my lease with the property company, I finally moved out and was able to find something that resembled peace of mind.

Women who kill their abusive partners

Now that I am back at the Wits Justice Project, I am researching the imprisonment of women who kill or maim their abusive partners. Their situation is far more complex than mine. They live and, sometimes, even depend on their abusers for material survival.

Considering that prisons mirror the realities in our society, it often baffles me that the impact of gender-based violence (GBV) is insufficiently considered when the law deals with women who escape death by killing or maiming their abusive partners.

Coupled with the poor recording of intimate-partner abuse cases, the stats on GBV remain elusive and lumped together with crimes such as common assault, assault and sexual crimes. Part of our problem is that we do not have a clear picture of GBV in our country.

Starting from the police who dismiss cases and encourage women to go home and "work it out" with their abusers, to a criminal justice system that has not contextualised self-defence in GBV cases as a unique set of circumstances.

READ | Opinion: Men need to raise their voices against GBV and femicide

Instead, women who fight back can earn themselves lengthy prison sentences dished out by a system that applies a singular approach to a complex issue.

When it comes to kidnappings, we understand the effects of Stockholm syndrome.

When it comes to women who live with and have complicated emotional connections with their abuser, we apply the same rules that apply to one stranger defending themselves against the attack of another. As far as choices are concerned, GBV leaves very little for women to choose from.

As a country, we’ve seen many cases where men take the lives of women who choose to leave.

We’ve also seen those who stay end up the same way as those who leave. Those who are painfully aware that their safety is not guaranteed whether they stay or leave are often propelled into a choice during a violent episode: Him or Me?

At times, death is the only answer when a man poses it as a question.

System failure 

I think back to the ways in which the system failed me. I also think about Vanessa, who was abused by her intimate partner years ago and how, more than a decade later, she was still terrified of naming him. I remember clearly the voice of the man, she said abused her, on the radio. He was very popular in Durban - where I grew up.

Now that I am older, I am aware of how a personality like his and Moloi's alleged rapist garner public affection and, ultimately, exoneration. I am aware of how predators rule with fear. How they thrive under a system that is at best, flawed, and at worst, murderous.

If women are to attain justice in this country, the system has to be overhauled.

We require justice that is aware and considerate of the complexity of gender-based violence. The system needs to not only acknowledge the role that fear plays in ongoing abuse, but also factor it into the judicial conceptualisation of "self-defence".

Most of all, women need to be assured beyond doubt, that death is not the answer that will end their suffering because the law will protect them whether they stay or leave.

Sumeya Gasa is a senior journalist at the Wits Justice Project, in South Africa. The WJP investigates human rights abuses and miscarriages of justice related to the criminal justice system. See: www.witsjusticeproject.co.za


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