Domestic violence in South Africa: Make the police take responsibility!

One night in 2010 CN’s* husband hit her so hard that she lost consciousness. CN was taken to the hospital, where she spent the night. The day after she was discharged, she decided to lay criminal charges against her husband. And this is where CN’s story stops making sense. Within 24 hours of approaching the police for assistance, CN was herself arrested, detained and assaulted by the police.

First, CN was given the wrong advice by police officers on duty, and told that she needed a domestic violence protection order from a magistrates court before she could lay a criminal charge. The court simply sent her back. The inspector assigned to the assist CN asked her for her telephone numbers, which he then used to call her husband, to invite him to the charge office. When CN’s husband arrived the inspector first spoke to him alone, and then told CN that she must discuss the matter with her husband to see if they could resolve it. When CN reported to the inspector that their discussion had not resolved the issue, and that she wanted to proceed with a charge, the inspector discouraged her. He told her that her husband would similarly lay a charge against her “for slapping”, and if this were to happen she would also be liable to be arrested. The inspector then asked them to write down their statements, and once they had done so, the inspector arrested both CN and her husband. They were both charged and detained in separate police cells at the police station, where CN then stayed the night.

The following morning, another police officer came to CN’s cell and informed her that he had come to take her to court. As she was being escorted to a police van she asked the officer to allow her a moment in order to speak to a more senior officer. But the officer sternly ordered her to board the police van, and then forcibly flung her into the back of the police van.

CN was subjected to “a dreadful series of traumatic, humiliating, dehumanising and flagrant violations of her rights to dignity, freedom of the person and bodily integrity.” This series of events makes so little sense because it is almost the polar opposite to what the South African legal framework envisages for domestic violence cases.

The Domestic Violence Act of 1998, a well-known piece of legislation that has been on South Africa’s law books for almost 17 years, is very clear about the responsibility of police officers in South Africa. In fact, the legislature regards domestic violence so seriously, that any failure to comply with one’s police duties in terms of the Act constitutes misconduct for the purposes of disciplinary action. The Regulations to the Act go into further detail about the duties of police officers, and a National Instruction issued to all police officers in 1999 leaves nothing open to interpretation. South Africa also has a Victim’s Charter, implementation audit tools, and a host of cooperative structures at local, provincial and national level where domestic violence can be discussed.

And despite all this legal regulation, the South African Police Service has been coughing up a lot lately in civil court for not doing their job. While there are pockets of excellence within the South African Police Service, it is an open and disgraceful secret that our police, particularly in townships and far-flung poor areas, perform badly when it comes to assisting victims of domestic violence. Police officers’ treatment of victims at station level often causes secondary trauma: a refusal or inability to come when called, a failure to explain a victims’ rights and legal options, sending victims home to deal with it “in the family”, and a failure to even understand their own duties under the Domestic Violence Act, or to even have a copy of the Act readily available in their stations. We know this first-hand from women seeking help, we know this scientifically from research, and we even know it from the police themselves. And we have known it for a long time.

What is most concerning is not that our police are doing badly, but that there is no desire to be honest with themselves and the public about shortcomings, and no real commitment to improving the situation. In a briefing to the parliamentary Portfolio Committee of Police, the SAPS would have us believe that they are doing well, and that almost no officers failed to comply with the Domestic Violence Act between 1 October 2014 and 31 March 2015.


Excerpt from presentation by the South African Police Service to Parliamentary Portfolio Committee for Police, on 18 August 2015.

They also reported that 100% of all 1 140 South African police stations were rendering “victim-friendly” services at the end of the first quarter of the 2015/16 financial year.

Which begs the question, why does the Women’s Legal Centre and other organisations continually deal with complaints, such as a recent case where a client, whose husband brandished and threatened her with a firearm on several occasions, had to approach three different police stations in her area before she could obtain police assistance? Why are there continued civil claims for damages against the police, for failing victims of domestic violence? Why is the Civilian Secretariat for Police reporting that only 1 of the 156 police stations audited in 2014 were fully compliant with the Domestic Violence Act? Why is it that women who are in possession of domestic violence protection orders, are still being abused and even killed by their partners?

There is no scarcity of recommendations for the police on improving their response to domestic violence, and thereby often preventing it. Civil society has, since the operationalisation of the Act, produced a multitude of research papers. Interest groups lobby relentlessly and women’s and men’s organisations clamour to be heard on the issue by various branches of government. We express the same concerns, and make the same arguments and appeals year in, and year out. In fact, even to those of us in the gender-based violence sector, we are starting to sound like broken records. In 2014, the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry heard extensive evidence about the handling of domestic violence cases by police. Community members testified about their experiences, the police released an unprecedented amount of internal data and documentation, and this in turn was analysed by various experts. The police themselves cooperated with the Commission, after initially refusing to take part, and ended up testifying frankly about their own challenges. And yet, the evidence-based recommendations (see Recommendation 14) which have national applicability have been rejected by the national Police Commissioner.

Police officers in South Africa can and must prevent domestic violence, through a quality response to victims. But there is complacency about ongoing police failure in this regard that seems to have set in, and it cannot be fixed by throwing more law or policy at it. Nor do civil claims seem to be driving home the message that the status quo is unacceptable.

The fact is that one station commander who cares about his station responding quickly and effectively to domestic violence, and takes responsibility for making it so, can do more good than ten policy documents and 20 reports to parliament. This is accountability. We should no longer be asking, “what must be done” but rather, “who is doing it”. Accountability means taking responsibility for what must be done, and it means real, personal consequences for failure to do your job.

(Image credit: Heinrich Böll Southern Africa)

In South Africa, the forced sterilization of HIV positive women is part of the plan

In March of this year, we wrote: “In South Africa this week, 48 women living with HIV and AIDS responded to the indignity and abuse of forced sterilization. Represented by Her Rights Initiative, Oxfam, and the Women’s Legal Centre, 48 women who had suffered forced sterilization in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal came forward and lodged a formal complaint. These 48 `cases’ were from 1986 to 2014. These 48 women are the tip of a rumbling volcano.” Yesterday, the volcano rumbled, as a report indicated that, of 6719 HIV positive women interviewed, 498 said they had been forcibly sterilized. “It is the largest number of reported forced sterilisation cases ever uncovered in the country.”

The report, The People Living With HIV Stigma Index: South Africa 2014, noted, under Sexual Reproductive Health: “Of concern is that 7% of respondents reported that they were forced to be sterilized. In addition, 37% of the respondents said that access to ARV treatment was conditional on use of contraceptives.” Sindisiwe Blose, a research project manager and a member of the Treatment Action Campaign, elaborated, “We heard from people living with HIV who had refused marriage due to stigma, had avoided work promotion, or had been coerced into undergoing sterilization. Behind the figures lies a depth of suffering that struggles to be addressed.”

Close to 500 women forcibly sterilized doesn’t just happen. In this instance, the incidents were distributed all over, with the hotspots in three provinces: Eden, in the Western Cape, accounted for 22%; Buffalo City, in the Eastern Cape, 20%; and Sedibeng, in Gauteng, 19%.

Sethembiso Mthembu, of Her Rights Initiative, responded to the numbers: “The data of 498 cases basically confirms the practice is widespread. It is systematic. It is not a few rotten apples.” The Women’s Legal Centre also described the sterilization as systemic, with Jody-Lee Fredericks, of the Centre, adding, “This is horrific.”

The horrific this is the banality of the policy. As Helen Rees of the Wits Reproductive Health & HIV Institute recently explained, the biggest concern right now is young women, ages 15 to 24, and women sex workers. Many of the young women who are “placed in this situation” are poor, vulnerable and “prey to sexual exploitation.” In other words, none of this is surprising.

Yesterday, Nkhensani Mavasa, the Chairperson of the Treatment Action Campaign, addressed the opening session of the South Africa Aids Conference 2015. She spoke of a new denialism among the leadership of the nation, and she warned, “If you choose to ignore the crisis in the healthcare system, this crisis that is a fact of our daily lives, you may, like those other denialists in the past, end up on the wrong side of history.”

The forced sterilization of HIV positive women is an integral part of that new denialism. In the complaint filed in March, 48 women and their supporters rejected the double stigma of being HIV positive and being unable to have children. They also rejected the third stigma of having failed the nation-State. Women who are HIV positive are viewed as failed citizens. That’s why they can be treated this way, despite Constitutional and legal protections to the contrary. The Department of Health says forced sterilization is not department policy, but it is practiced, in the open, regularly. The forced sterilization of HIV positive women is an integral part of State violence against women, and it is never accidental or incidental. It is part of the plan.


(Photo Credit: The Star / Chris Collingridge)

The Traditional Courts Bill is dead. Long live Sizani Ngubane!

Sizani Ngubane

The Alliance for Rural Democracy, South Africa, announced today that the Traditional Courts Bill is dead: “The Traditional Courts Bill (TCB) is dead. This follows years of opposition from civil society and is a massive victory for the thousands of people in rural parts of the country who spoke out against the bill during provincial public hearings … Women have been at the forefront of opposition to the TCB, arguing that it would legalise and entrench current discrimination.”

The Alliance statement quotes Nomboniso Gasa, of the Alliance for Rural Democracy and the Centre for Law and Society, University of Cape Town, and Sizani Ngubane: “Sizani Ngubane of the Rural Women’s Movement in KZN states: `The TCB was never about custom. It was about bolstering the power of chiefs. Government can no longer deny the abuses that many chiefs are getting away with, because we explained these abuses over and over again in the public hearings. What we need now is a law that protects real custom and protects women, especially, against the kinds of autocratic power that chiefs got used to under apartheid.’”

Many other women, and women’s organizations, contributed to the death of the Traditional Courts Bill. The Women’s Legal Centre has worked tirelessly in the courts. Siyasanga Mazinyo, of the Rural People’s Movement, has been organizing and representing tirelessly across the provinces. And Aninka Claasens has been researching and writing tirelessly on the implications and injustices of the bill.

For decades, Sizani Ngubane has been speaking out, organizing, researching, writing with rural women initially in KwaZulu Natal, and then across South Africa. She founded the Rural Women’s Movement in 1998, which later became the National Movement of Rural Women.

In 1999, Sizani Ngubane met with women across the rural expanse of KwaZulu Natal. She was conducting research about the situation of women and the prospects for organizing a women’s movement. Here’s her conclusion: “Although no longer constitutionally defined as minors in the law of the country …women continue to be treated as subordinates to men; this subordination is defended by many (including some women) in the name of `African culture’ … As a result of the gendered division of labour in the communities, women carry much of the responsibility associated with food production … Women also carry the burden of responsibility for maintaining the household, energy and water collection and childcare. As a result women have less time to develop themselves as individuals or as groups. The prime constraint women face is the absence of a strong lobby campaigning for women’s land rights in rural areas … Organizing women around the land their needs is central to meaningful land reform: that process must begin now.”

The Traditional Courts Bill is dead. Long live Sizani Ngubane and all the women who killed it!

(Photo Credit: International Alliance of Women)

Cry the beloved Khayelitsha (Commission)

South Africa is currently awash in commissions of inquiry. There’s the ongoing and perhaps never-ending Marikana Commission. Today we read there’s to be a new commission of inquiry into the Tongaat mall collapse, last November. And there’s the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry into allegations of police inefficiency in Khayelitsha and a breakdown in relations between the community and police in Khayelitsha.

While women are significant participants in the Marikana and the Tongaat events and commissions, women are in many ways the subjects of the Khayelitsha Commission. This is not surprising, given the nature of the inquiry. The Commission’s mandate isn’t to get to the bottom of a tragic event, but rather to investigate and get to the texture of decades long dissolution of everyday life.

In the 1980s, the State built Khayelitsha and has continued to do so ever since. Part of this construction has involved the establishment of a State of sexual tyranny. That State of sexual tyranny has come forth in the testimony of Khayelitsha residents to the Commission.

The Commission began in response to a complaint lodged by the Women’s Legal Centre, representing the Social Justice Coalition, Treatment Action Campaign, Equal Education, Free Gender, Triangle Project, and Ndifuna Ukwazi. That complaint was lodged in 2012. The Social Justice Coalition had been organizing hard for two years prior for an investigation into the situation of justice administration in Khayelitsha. As the complaint noted, “Since 2003 the civil society organisations have held more than one hundred demonstrations, pickets, marches and other forms of protest against the continued failures of the Khayelitsha police and greater criminal justice system. The organisations have also submitted numerous petitions and memorandums to various levels of government in this regard. There have been sustained and coordinated efforts from various sectors of the Khayelitsha community for action to be taken by government agencies, including the police, to improve the situation.”

For over a decade, intensifying police incompetence, corruption, violence, and disregard for the local population went hand in hand with `vigilante justice’. In 2012 alone, 20 `vigilante’ collective killings were reported in the area. The struggle for space and for citizenship was running with blood and smoke. In the struggle for safe space and full citizenship, women, again, have been key. As the Women’s Legal Centre complaint noted, “Girls and women are frequently beaten and raped whilst walking to and from communal toilets or fetching water from communal taps close to their homes, while domestic abuse poses a threat to the safety of many women within their own homes. Between March 2003 and March 2011 there has been a 9.36% increase in the number of reported sexual crimes reported in Khayelitsha.”

Throughout the decades, women have kept their eyes on the prize. Khayelitsha is home. They should be able to live, and love, at home without fear of violence. Their children, partners, parents, friends, neighbors should as well. Through the use of public funds and private security forces, Cape Town has established `improvement districts’ … in the central city, inner southern suburbs, Sea Point and Green Point. Not in Khayelitsha. The women know that, and they don’t accept it.

Funeka Soldaat, founder of Free Gender, recounted her story of being raped, because she is lesbian, in 1995. She went to one police station, where nothing happened. Finally, without here statement being taken, she was taken to a hospital and dumped outside. The hospital said she needed a statement, and so she walked to Khayelitsha Site B police station, all of this right after having been raped. There she was treated disrespectfully, she felt because of her sexual orientation, and no statement was taken. Finally, literally barefoot, she walked home and went to sleep. The rest of the story is pain, healing, organizing. As to the police: “Khayelitsha police appear to lack the energy, will and intent to provide a service to LGBT [people].”

Malwande Msongelwa described what happened when she found her brother, stabbed to death at a bus stop. She called the police, and they didn’t come. She called again, and they finally came, but did nothing. Worse, they refused to get out of their cars: “The police do not care about people… [they] will only come out if there are drugs. Then they will come out with 10 cars …They do not even care if you are injured… If the ambulance hasn’t arrived they won’t touch you. They wait in their car… I don’t trust the police.” Her brother lay on the ground for six hours. The crime scene was never investigated.

The stories continue. Ms. Nduna describes how a police van hit and dragged one of her children. This was the fifth child in the area to suffer harm, and worse, at the hands of a police vehicle. What happened? “We buried and there was nothing still.”

The harrowing stories of violence, of police inaction and worse, of vigilante action and worse, occur in a framework of radical hope. Phumeza Mlungwana, Secretary General of the Social Justice Coalition, put it simply and directly: “Most of Khayelitsha is policeable.”

Witness and after witness explained that lights, presence, a diversity of site appropriate techniques, a committed and engaged and respectful police force are what are called for. It’s not rocket science, and it’s not impossible. The women of Khayelitsha know that. They know, from experience, that when the work of struggle accompanies the work of mourning, they can make things happen. The Commission itself is a step along that path. The struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: Kate Stegeman / Daily Maverick)