In South Africa, crime statistics for domestic violence, rape and femicide are through the roof. The crime rate for women as perpetrators, on the other hand, is very low. Approximately 4 000 women, a mere 2.6% of the total prison population, are behind bars.
Some of the women incarcerated in prisons throughout the country are serving lengthy prison sentences for killing their abusive, violent partners in self-defence. There is currently no accurate information* available on what percentage of the women in prison are there for this reason, though. However, under South African law, killing in self-defence is justified if there is an ongoing or imminent illegal attack and the self-defence is reasonable and proportionate to the attack. If these conditions are met, acquittal or non-custodial sentences should be imposed.
Three women who spoke to the Wits Justice Project (WJP) managed to stay alive by killing their abusive partners. They had a knife to their throats or were being strangled when they killed their violent partner. Lawyers, prosecutors and judges often ignore or misunderstand this context of domestic violence and therefore the women end up serving lengthy prison sentences.
‘I lost my only son in June 2014. He had an epileptic fit in the bath and died. He was 14 years old. Shortly after his death, I was talking to a friend on the phone about my grief. My partner thought I was cheating on him with another man and he started hitting and biting me. The first time he assaulted me was two weeks after my son’s passing. I had lacerations and bite marks all over my body. That first time, I reported him to the police, but they did nothing, while I ended up in hospital.
The second time he attacked me was a lot worse. He had locked the doors in the house and we were in the living room. He had cornered me against the front door. As I was trying to get away from him, I grabbed a knife to protect myself. The house was dark and we were struggling over the knife. He was drunk and aggressive. I ran out of the house when he released me. I wasn’t wearing any clothes as our fight had started in the bedroom. I ran as fast as I could, because I was expecting him to chase me, but when he didn’t, I circled around to the back of the house. When I came to the living room I saw him lying in a pool of blood. I immediately called the police and an ambulance.
The police arrested me on 6 September 2014 and the trial started in January 2016. My Legal Aid lawyer did not mention self-defence before the magistrate. There was no investigation into my side of the story. My mother-in-law told me that my husband had beaten up a girlfriend before and also that he was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. But this was not taken into account. The magistrate acknowledged that it could have been an accident and that I couldn’t have foreseen that someone would die. He even asked my lawyer why he was not raising self-defence. On 9 February of this year, I was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
I feel very sad about what happened. I never expected to be responsible for taking someone’s life. At first I thought I was a monster, but I have come to realise that it was either him or me. We were both responsible for what happened, and he paid for it with his life. This experience has taught me not to judge people. When I arrived in prison, I judged my fellow inmates, but I have learned that we all have a cross to bear.’
‘I was up against a wall in the kitchen, my husband had his hands around my neck. He was trying to strangle me and he said: “I am going to kill you because I love you.” That night, on 26 November 2011, he had come home drunk and angry. He started shouting and swearing at me for no reason. It quickly escalated to hitting and punching. I fled to the kitchen and when he had his hands around my neck and was threatening to kill me, I grabbed a knife and stabbed him once in the chest.
I immediately phoned an ambulance and the police. By the time they arrived, my husband had bled to death. The police arrested me.
I had met him in college in when I was 22. We got married in 1998 and had four children, one of whom died during childbirth. In 2002, he hit me for the first time. Our first child had just been born. He came home drunk and started shouting and swearing at me for no reason. When he hit me in the face our baby started crying and he backed off.
During the following years I was subjected to his emotional abuse; he would sometimes stay away for a whole weekend, then come home drunk and aggressive.
In 2009, the violence escalated. This time it was worse. I was in the bedroom and he knocked on my door, but I didn’t hear him because I was sleeping. When he finally came into the room, he started punching me in the face. I tried to cover myself. He took out his belt and started whipping me with that. At the time, we had an outside toilet and during the night, we would use a bucket that we kept in the room. My husband grabbed the bucket and poured it all over me.
I had two black eyes after this incident and bruises all over my body. I spoke to his mother about this but all she asked was ‘Are you angry with him?’. His sister said nothing when I told her. I didn’t report the abuse to the police because I loved him.
In December 2012, I was sentenced to eight years in prison. My lawyer raised self-defence before the judge, but I can’t remember what the judge said, because I was very emotional and upset at the time and my memories are a blur.
I spent four years in prison, first in Sun City (formally known as Johannesburg Correctional Center), then Khosi Mampuru prison in Pretoria and the last year I was in Middelburg prison. The female section there is small, only about 50 women. I would say the majority of them are inside for killing an abusive partner. I met many women who were in prison for the same reason as me.
I was released in April of this year and since then I have been working hard to rebuild my life. It has been difficult. My in-laws moved into my house after I was arrested and my mother-in-law took my three kids with her to Mpumalanga. I haven’t seen them in six years and she has refused to give me any access to them, claiming that I would kill them too. All I want now is to have my children and house back.’
‘He put a knife to my throat and said: I am going to kill you. When he put down the knife to strangle me, I grabbed it and stabbed him. Our two year old was sitting in the corner, observing everything. He started to cry. I took my child and fled the house. Outside, I phoned the police, who came to the house and arrested me.
It wasn’t the first time he had physically attacked me. In 2014 he broke my arm when he attacked me with firewood. He hit me on my head and body and as a result, I lost consciousness. I was so stressed out and injured at the time that I lost my job. I reported the assault to the police and left him. His family begged me to come back and they assured me: he will never do this again.
But the fact that I had reported him to the police, combined with my unemployment just served to fuel his anger and eventually it led to the fatal attack.
Last year, the magistrate sentenced me to eight years in prison. My lawyer claimed I killed my husband in self-defence, but the judge just said: ‘Too many women kill their husbands.’ He said that he had to make an example of me for the other women who are thinking of killing their partners.
I have three children, aged three, 10 and 12. They are really suffering at the moment, as they have no parents. I am also suffering and I haven’t seen them since I was sentenced. I don’t know what will happen to them and that keeps me up at night.’
*Neither the SAPS, the National Prosecuting Authority nor the correctional services department keep any records on how many women kill their abusive partners.
The academic research into women who kill their abusive partners is minimal. In 1998, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation published a report, Analysis of Convictions and Sentences for Spousal Killings in Three Gauteng Courts. In total, they reviewed 169 cases, 39 of which concerned women who had killed their partners, during the period 1994 to 1998. Most women had killed the men in circumstances of abuse. The majority of women had either been acquitted or given a noncustodial sentence.
In 2012, the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit of the University of Cape Town released a report into women’s pathways into crime and incarceration. Seven of the 55 women prisoners interviewed for the report had killed their abusive partners.
**these women want to remain anonymous
This story forms part of a series. Read:
Mbali’s story of giving birth to her daughter in chains.
What it’s really like to be in a South African prison: 3 women speak
Ruth Hopkins works as an investigative journalist for the Wits Justice Project. The WJP investigates human rights abuses and miscarriages of justice related to the criminal justice system. See: www.witsjusticeproject.co.za