The horrific death of 22-year-old business student Karabo Mokoena in April 2017, necklaced and doused with acid, and the arrest of her forex trader boyfriend, catapulted femicide into our national consciousness. Despite this murder being followed by a spate of reports of similar killings, those working in gender violence say there was no spike in incidence – only of coverage, as happened after the high-profile killing of Reeva Steenkamp by Oscar Pistorius.
‘The reality is that we see victims constantly,’ says Palesa Mpapa, legal and advocacy manager of People Opposed to Women Abuse (POWA). In South Africa, a woman is killed every eight hours, and at least half of these women die at the hands of an intimate partner or ex, reports the SA Medical Research Council (MRC), making our femicide rate an estimated five times higher than the global average. And according to MRC research and Stats SA, one in five women over 18 has experienced violence from a partner. Abuse comes in many forms – emotional and financial abuse can be as traumatising and crippling as its physical counterpart, and are often overlooked. Three South African women share their stories of abuse in all its forms, and how they eventually reached the point where they’d had enough.
Philippa Skylaar, 56
Survivor of physical abuse
‘A friend introduced me to Sam* over coffee in a Rosebank restaurant: a handsome, charming, high-powered businessman. I was smitten. When he saw me take sweetener from my bag, his eyes lit up – he thought it was cocaine. Then he bragged he’d smashed his car while out drinking the night before. And right in front of me, he began flirting with a woman at the next table. All the signs were there – they nearly always are – a druggie, alcoholic and a womaniser. And I rushed in on cue to save him: I took him to AA for our first date.
‘The first time he hit me was three months later. A woman had kept phoning him and he’d told her I was just a friend needing a place to stay. When I asked why he was lying, he belted me, ripping the earring from my ear. I was mortified and shocked: to me, abusers were lowlifes with missing teeth. Sam was successful, and so well-respected. He immediately said how terribly sorry he was, that he was crazy about me, and that it would never happen again. But it did. Frequently.
‘An abusive relationship is the coming together of two people whose pathologies find a perfect fit. As an abused woman, you participate in the dance in ways you don’t understand. Even after five years of this exhausting, emotionally fraught tango, when Sam asked me to marry him, I said yes. I loved him and thought I could change him. As a classic codependent, I equated love with need. He needed me and I needed to save him.
‘Six weeks before the wedding, he came home late and drunk and beat me until I was a mass of welts. At 5am I managed to crawl to the phone, and called my mom to pick me up. The next afternoon he rang, begging forgiveness. A magazine had run a piece that morning about our engagement, and I just felt relieved that he still loved me and wanted me back.
‘The wedding was magnificent. I’d even made his favourite Mars bar chocolate cheesecake as the wedding cake. He arrived tipsy and kept on drinking. Later he kissed the waitress as he stumbled off to bed before the guests had left. The next morning he had no memory of the wedding. I was devastated, but triumphant – every woman I knew wanted him, and I’d won.
‘It took seven years to accept that I was an abused woman. We were married for two of them. I’d be in physio a few days a week and have no memory of him beating me. I learned later it’s what abused women do: we detach. He even hit me when we visited an ashram in India to find peace. I lay nursing a teapot wrapped in a towel against my stomach where he’d kicked me.
‘Then, one night back home, he threw me down, stood on my hair with one foot and kicked me down a step with the other. Seeing that strip of hair on the concrete floor, something clicked. I drove to the police station and laid an assault charge.
‘But even that didn’t stop our dance. The day I finally had enough came when he tried to put out his cigar on my cheek, bit my mouth and attempted to strangle me. I was fighting for my life. I managed to press a panic button and a patrol car arrived.
‘I divorced him and fled the country. Of course, that wasn’t the end. Abusers come gift-wrapped in different ways, and sometimes abused women subconsciously seek them out. I found one who seemed devoted and caring, the opposite of Sam, and married him. I soon discovered the same syndrome but without the violence. He was controlling
– he had to know exactly where I was and with whom. And I wasn’t allowed to spend any money: he bought everything and expected gratitude and praise for it. He was jealous of my friends, and even of me. He loved cooking, and if someone praised my efforts more than his, he sarcastically imitated their compliments and lashed out with insults.
‘Emotional abuse is almost harder to handle than physical. The scars of self-doubt run deeper. After 17 months I filed for divorce.
‘I at last questioned my definition of love. I wrote a list of characteristics I wish for in love: trust, kindness, support … and then a list of what I was instead receiving: insults, distrust, humiliation. I’d been waiting for someone to rescue me for so long, but then suddenly realised the only person who could do that was me.
‘I read every self-help book, studied Kabbalah, spoke to a counsellor regularly and started to heal. There’s always a pay-off to self-destructive behaviour. I discovered mine was that as long as I was trying to save a man, I never had anything to do that was worthwhile with my life. That’s when I committed myself to my project. Abuse gave my life purpose.
‘I now run a non-profit organisation called The Women’s Voice Project, which is dedicated to reducing domestic violence in South Africa. One of my programmes includes helping women serving life sentences in prison for murdering their partners – and all are victims of abuse.
‘But I want to get it through to women that it doesn’t have to end that way, there are other means to escaping a life of abuse.’
Dineo Rabatha*, 46
Survivor of financial abuse
‘Seven years into my marriage with John*, I began to grow concerned about the number of ‘final warning’ envelopes arriving in our postbox with his name on them, and the continuous calls from creditors enquiring about loan and credit-card payments that were overdue.
‘When I questioned him about this, he assured me that it was a mistake, that it must be his father’s accounts, as they shared the same initials. How his father, a humble and frugal man, had racked up over R120 000 in debt was a mystery to me, but at that time in our lives, both John and I were pastors in a big international church, deeply religious and in love (with young twin sons), so I never questioned his explanation (and never thought to interrogate his father).
‘Eventually, after the continuous notices, phone calls and summons letters, John called me aside one night and came clean. He told me that he had, in fact, built up all that debt, but it was in an attempt to start his own business (or many of them, none of which came to fruition), to create a better life for our family. He begged my forgiveness. I was shocked, angry and completely flabbergasted that this had gone on right under my nose – also at the elaborate lies he had told me. After a lot of emotional trauma, I forgave him and continued to help him pay back the debt while he was unemployed for a year. Eventually we started getting back on our feet and he convinced me to join him working at our local church. I believed in him and his good heart, his desire to help the poor, and I wanted to assist him in promoting his career in the new church.
‘Life went on as we tried to pay off the debt, little by little. Four years later, he joined a political party and started talking about all these business opportunities. He kept pressuring me to invest money into various start-ups. As a dutiful Christian wife, I trusted him implicitly and only believed the best, so I agreed (I was working for a large retail chain at the time). It was after another two years of the same behaviour when it eventually emerged that he had been stealing from both the political party [he worked for] and the church; he had opened over 40 companies (some of which had my name listed as director – he forged my signature on official documents to get BEE status as I am a black woman) and none of them had ever made any money, but instead incurred debt, this time to the value of over R150 000.
‘My immediate thought was, “How did this happen again?” I was beyond angry. I was irate. But John’s lies were always so intricate, so convoluted, so believable – I couldn’t put all the blame on myself, although I did feel like an absolute idiot for believing him for over a decade.
‘Over the years, each time I had confronted him he would start out charming and reassuring. But then, when caught out, the blame would somehow shift to me. He’d say it was because I made him feel like less of a man, or it was because I did not trust him, or that I made him feel inferior and always thought the worst of him; he said he’d begun to live up to my beliefs.
‘I had had enough. I told the leaders of the church about everything; all the lies finally collapsed around him – I would no longer cover for him. That is when it dawned on me that my whole life with him had been one big lie. I was heartbroken. Yet I still attempted counselling with him, to see if there was any last way we could patch things up – but he continued to lie, and I found out he had cheated on me (which I later discovered he had been doing for years too) and engaging in dodgy business deals.
‘That was the last straw. I threw all of his clothes and belongings on to the pavement outside and changed the locks. It was not my proudest moment, but I was done. No going back. Fortunately, he agreed to move out and leave the house to me and the kids.
‘Four years on, I am still trying to get my life back together. I am rebuilding myself both financially and emotionally; last year I qualified as a clinical psychologist. My focus has been to be the best mother I can be to our two sons, who have also been greatly affected by this traumatic ordeal.’
Charmaine Lawrence*, 28
Survivor of emotional abuse
‘I was 20 when I met Simon*, who was 10 years older than me. He was charming, attractive, successful and a sweet-talker. I liked him instantly and was infatuated.
‘After our first date, we became inseparable for almost two weeks – I slept over at his house almost every night; he wooed me with dinner, drinks and constant compliments. And then, one day, he just didn’t reply to my texts. I called, I sent messages, but received nothing in return. For three days I agonised over what I could possibly have done wrong. What happened? Did I say something to scare him away? How had I already messed this up? I was completely distraught and an emotional wreck.
‘On the fourth day of waiting, he sent me a casual text: “Hey C, want to meet for a drink tonight?” There was no apology, no “how are you?”, and no reference at all to the fact that he had gone AWOL, and ignored my attempts at communication. I was dumbstruck but so very happy to hear from him that I discounted the fact that he’d gone ‘missing’ with no explanation, and just replied, “yes, great, I’d love to.”
‘And so this set the tone for our relationship. The above scenario played out many more times over the next six months, but I was insecure, emotionally immature and frankly besotted with him. I had learned to forgive the times he left me hanging because I loved being with him, and that made it worth it.
‘I moved in with him after about eight months of being together, and witnessed first-hand his tendency to withdraw, which explained his previous behaviour with me, when I wouldn’t hear from him for days at a time. He became moody, irritable and irrational. He’d go from happy one minute to confrontational and angry the next. He’d fight with me for no apparent reason – and he was very, very good at winning arguments. I was always left to feel as if I had done something wrong. And I found that I was constantly on the defence, apologising for what I didn’t feel was something worth being sorry for, simply trying to retain the peace and get him back to the happy version of himself.
‘When we fought, it grew nasty. The more he raised his voice and shouted with anger, the more I would bawl my eyes out, begging and pleading with him to calm down. But my crying just made things worse – he would always reprimand me, and say things like “just grow up, why do you always have to cry about everything?”
Although he never hit me, I was scared of the violent way he behaved when he was at the height of his outbursts – he would hold on to my shoulders and shake me so hard that I’d feel light-headed; the next day, out of shame, I would hide the bruises that appeared on my skin. He once screamed at me so loudly and viciously (calling me everything from a useless bitch to the “c” word) that our neighbour sent me a text making sure I was okay. I was ashamed, embarrassed and always tried to downplay what was going on.
‘Most of the time he would apologise the next day, but not overtly. More like “sorry about last night”, and that would be it.
‘He grew possessive of me too: he didn’t like me spending too much time with my friends. If I wanted to have drinks after work with my colleagues, it was a problem, and the same went for going out too late and spending money. He would accuse me of cheating, of being an alcoholic and would always belittle and intimidate me. While I earned my own money, he was still the ‘provider’ – the apartment belonged to him, he paid for all the utilities, and he financed most of our weekends away and nights out. We had created a life together over two years, and on the outside, we looked like the perfect couple – but inside I was suffering. I was constantly anxious and on edge – I felt like I was walking
on eggshells daily, always worried I’d set him off.
‘One day after work, and after a particularly bad episode the night before, which left me bruised, puffy-eyed and emotionally broken, I “disobeyed the rules” and decided to have a few drinks after work with a close and trusted colleague to whom I came clean, and who was completely floored to hear what was going on in my life. I was exhausted from being so tense and anxious, and always on the back foot. Voicing what was going on helped – and hearing from an outsider that I was not in fact crazy, and that my living situation sounded unbearable, gave me the courage I needed to decide that enough was enough.
‘My colleague drove with me to Simon’s apartment; I hurriedly packed a bag of clothes and fled. I sent him a message to say I needed a break and left it there; I didn’t message him or return his calls or texts asking where I was. I left him hanging for a few days; I gave him a taste of his own medicine, which in hindsight may have been childish, but I felt that it gave me the power over the situation, something I hadn’t had for years.
‘I spent the next month living with a friend, and mulled over reconciling, but eventually decided that it wasn’t worth it. It was a really tough break-up to get over – I second-guessed myself continuously, but eventually came to peace with my decision. Abuse is not always physical – emotional abuse can be as traumatic, if not worse. It’s not normal to feel the way I did – and I am so glad I realised that and broke the cycle.’
*Names changed to protect identity
Abusers come in all forms, warn Mpapa and Joburg social worker Sue Hickey, who work closely with victime of abuse. They advise being wary of getting involved with a man if:
• He’s jealous and possessive, or has a quick temper, mood swings or a history of violence
• He constantly checks up on you and tries to control you, making all the decisions
• He pressures you into committing to a relationship before you feel ready
• He’s unemployed, socially inept and dependent, and you’re liberated and independent
• You find yourself making excuses for his moods or behaviour, and walk on eggshells around him
• He abuses alcohol or drugs.
NOTICE THE SIGNS AT THE START OF A RELATIONSHIP
There are patterns in stories of violence and abuse. Recognising these and ‘pre-incident indicators’ (PINS) can help us avoid violence, says international violence and security expert Gavin de Becker, author of the bestseller The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence.
The key, he says, is to learn to listen to our gut – our survival instinct – and to put our manners and socially instilled reservations aside. Too often our judgement gets in the way of our perception and intuition, leading us to dismiss it unless we can logically explain it, and to tell ourselves we’re paranoid. ‘We, in contrast to every creature in nature, choose not to explore – and even ignore – survival signals,’ Gavin says.
Forced ‘teaming’: When a man implies he has something in common with you, or that you have a shared predicament, and speaks as ‘we’.
Charm: He uses friendliness and politeness to disarm and manipulate you.
Overdoing the details: He gives excessive details, indicating he’s lying and trying to sound more credible.
Denigration: If you’ve been ignoring or resisting him, he puts you down to encourage you to contradict him, saying something like, ‘You think you’re too good to talk to someone like me.’
Loan sharking: He gives unsolicited assistance, so you feel obliged to return the favour in some way.
Unsolicited promises: He gives a promise when it’s not required, which generally means he intends to break it: ‘I promise I’ll go away if you just do x first.’
Ignoring ‘no’: He refuses any attempt at rejection.
Leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time, when most femicides occur. Get advice and support before making a move:
011 642 4345/6
Stop Gender Violence toll-free hotline
0800 150 150
Life Line National
0861 322 322
031 202 8987
021 447 7951
Family Life Centre in Johannesburg
011 788 4784
Department of Social Development GBV Command Centre
0800 428 428
‘please call me’ number
(Social workers can give telephonic counselling and the system can track your physical location for speedy intervention.)
For a database of shelters and guidelines on the Domestic Violence Act, applying for protection orders and how to draw up a safety plan, visit Justice.gov.za/vg/dv.html.
BY LYNETTE BOTHA AND GLYNIS HORNING