Seven years after Philda Sarlie killed her husband, the Johannesburg grandmother opens up about the relationship and the years of abuse. As told to Mandy Wiener:

I met James at a club while out with friends. I was 30 and was separated from my husband, the father of my two children. I didn’t like James straightaway. He wasn’t my cup of tea but eventually I got to know him and I began to think he was an amazing person. We talked on the phone for hours. It wasn’t love in the beginning. He was just a friend. Somebody I could count on. Then my feelings got stronger and James and I moved in together. He was completely different from my ex-husband – he was a hard, no-nonsense type of person. I needed that solidity.

“Philda, don’t turn around, but James is behind us.”

But a year into our relationship, when he started feeling insecure about the good relationship I had with my ex-husband, that firmness became abusive. At first it was emotional. Calls to my cellphone were diverted to his. Then he started stalking me. I’d walk in a mall and my friends would say, “Philda, don’t turn around, but James is behind us.” He would also go to my office to find out if I was at work. Then it became physical. He would pull me and shove me. One day, while we were sitting on the couch, he pulled out a knife and sliced me across my face, in front of my children. My daughter was five years old. This little child came and sat on my lap and touched my bleeding face. I can still see her face. I can still see the hurt in her eyes.

The next day I told him this was not the life I wanted, and he apologised. I stayed with him – and the abuse – for 18 years. I thought it would get better. I thought he would change. He said he would go to counselling sessions, but he lied and didn’t go. The abuse would stop for a few months, and then it would get worse. Do you know how many times he threatened me? How many times he told me he’d kill me and my kids if I left? I knew he would do it. He would kill us all and then himself.

One night, he came home, took his gun and shot at me. The bullet just missed my head. I’m sure he wanted to kill me. He aimed at me and if I had turned my head an inch, I would have been shot. All I could think about was that he was going to kill my kids. I will never forget the night I shot him.

It was in April 2009. I had arranged a function for James’ best friend’s 50th birthday – James was supposed to make a speech, but he didn’t show up. He made no apologies; he didn’t let me know where he was. So I just carried on and when I got home, I drank two Myprodols and went to sleep. I woke up to someone stomping on me. I thought it was a burglar but then I realised it was James. While he was trampling and kicking me, he was shouting, “I hear you were the belle of the ball!” People who were at the birthday function saw him later at a club and told him what an amazing event I had organised. Witnesses later recalled him saying, “When I get home, the shit is going to fly.” I was like a rag doll. He threw me, kicked me, beat me. I ripped the curtains off the windows. He threw me on the floor and stomped on me. He was swearing and screaming. He handed me my cellphone and said, “You better start phoning everyone you know because you will never see them again. This is the night you will be joining your mother in heaven.”

When he went to the walk-in closet, my heart sank..

When he went to the walk-in closet, my heart sank – the only reason he would go there was to fetch his gun. My head was throbbing. I felt nauseous. He pointed his gun at me and said, “Tonight, I am going to kill you. I’m not threatening you. Tonight, I am going to kill you.” I knew that I was going to die. And in that moment, I was happy to die. All I prayed for were my kids and my grandchildren – I knew the abuse would end that night. He was going to kill me and then kill himself. He poked the gun in my ribs. I can still feel the gun against my face, against my throat. I knew this man was going to pull the trigger. But then he put the gun down and started beating me again. As he choked me, I could feel the breath leave my body. But I also felt a higher power – and pushed James away. I remember the moment clearly.

I don’t know where I got the strength. I grabbed the gun and I pulled the trigger. There was a moment before I fired the shot when James saw me holding the gun. He came at me with blood in his eyes. I didn’t think, I didn’t aim, I just pulled the trigger. All I saw was a red mark on his white T-shirt, and I heard him call my name. “Philly,” he said. It was his nickname for me. There was no hatred in his voice. But I still had so much fear. I ran out of the house. I didn’t look back – I knew James would hurt me even more if he could, because I had never fought back before. I phoned the police. James died an hour or two later.

“[Until] you know my story, you can’t judge me.”

Nobody wanted to tell me but when I heard, I went hysterical. I realised what I had done. I had shot somebody I loved. I had killed the man I loved. When I went to the police station to make my statement, all the previous abuse cases I had reported resurfaced. I had always withdrawn each case after James and I had talked it through. I was never charged because the prosecutor deemed I had killed James in self-defence. I have so much regret. If I could’ve packed up and left with my two children when they were young, I would have. I would never have wanted this. It hurts knowing that you’ve killed someone you love, and I am forever branded as the woman who killed her husband. But until you know my story, you can’t judge me. If I could have my life back, I would never have shot James.

I would probably still be in that abusive relationship. Or maybe I would’ve been dead by now. All I can say to other abused women is, don’t stay silent. What helped my defence was that I didn’t keep the abuse a secret from my friends and family. People knew about it, so I had testimonies confirming the abuse. If you are in an abusive relationship, don’t keep quiet. And if you can – and I know it’s difficult – get out.’

Photo by Hanro Havenga / Lampost


If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact:

People Opposed to Women Abuse (083 765 1235)

Visit POWA

Stop Gender Abuse on its toll-free helpline: 0800 150 150