Poppy Makgobatlou, 53, might have escaped 29 years of abuse at the hands of her ex-husband, but the effects of continuous beatings left her with a dislocated shoulder that now prevents her from getting a job.
Makgobatlou’s malfunctioning right arm lies on her lap as she sits outside her shack. “One day he entered by the kitchen door and I was coming from the sitting room. He pushed me towards the wall. He beat me and broke my shoulder joint. I am not working today because of that man. I can’t do anything for myself,” the mother of two said as she held copies of x-rays that show the broken bones in her shoulder. This happened in 2015.
For 29 years Makgobatlou was living in a cycle of abuse. It began two years into her marriage with verbal attacks. Later, he began hitting her. In 2002, she was diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure. Doctors said it would be impossible for her to have more children, which fuelled the maltreatment.
“While hitting me he would say I am not respecting him, and he would insult me and call me degrading names,” she recalled. Her husband would frequently criticise the clothes she wore.
When she alerted her mother in-law, she was dismissed. Her mother in-law said there was nothing she could do, especially now that Makgobatlou could not have any more children. She then told her mother, who also did not help. “My mother was old school, she believed that lebitla la mosadi ke bogadi (A woman’s grave is at the residence of her in-laws). She told me to persevere. She said if I decide to leave my husband, I will embarrass her.” Makgobatlou’s mother died in 2015.
“I suffered a lot. I couldn’t stand up for myself. I blamed myself a lot. [I thought], ‘If I do something different, he will change’,” she said, leaning towards the patio couch. “I developed low self-esteem. I was ashamed that the neighbors would judge me.”
Even after attending marriage counselling sessions four times, the abuse did not stop. Her two boys, Thapelo, 34, and Lebogang, 27, would sometimes witness the abuse. “My last born had so much anger. My children even tried to intervene.”
Makgobatlou’s brother’s death in 2016 saved her life. “My ex-husband wanted to kill me. He accused me of selling our wedding rings. He was standing in front of me saying he will shoot me. As he was confronting me, I got a call informing me about my brother’s death. When he heard that, he left. If my brother didn’t die, I could’ve been the one who died.”
After leaving her husband, Makgobatlou was homeless, moving from one house to another. She ended up living with her niece and nephew, who later on chased her out.
In 2017, while collecting her medication at the local clinic, she was told about a project run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF). The project, which is situated in Rustenburg in the North West, caters for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
In 2015, MSF conducted a household survey, where 800 women between the ages of 18 to 49 were interviewed. The survey revealed that one in four women living in Rustenburg had experienced rape at some point in their lives. The survey further indicated that only a few seek police or medical help. MSF then partnered with the department of health in North West to create four clinics in Bojanala Platinum district. Today, these clinics are known as Kgomotso Care Centres. They provide free, high-quality services for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
Makgobatlou contacted Kgomotso Care Centre by using a “please call me” message. A driver picked her up. “Their drivers are good hearted,” she said.
At the centre she received counselling. Although she often broke down, the centre helped her. As she had no place to stay, she was transferred to a Grace Help Centre. A few months later, Makgobatlou met Elizabeth Mothibedi, 76, who took her into her home in Modderspruit, in the North West. Today, this is the place she calls home.
Driving for change
From 2017 to 2019, the Kgomotso Care Centres have helped 3 007 clients in 1 379 cases of sexual violence and 1 623 cases of non-sexual violence, including domestic violence.
“Coming here was a bit of a shock,” said Molefe Motsilenyane, 31, a driver for Kgomotso Care Centres, “because the project is new, everyone is excited. Then you come across your first case – the number one question that comes to mind is why a man would do this to someone they claim to love.”
After leaving his job as a chef, Motsilenyane joined MSF as a way of participating in a project for change. The centre opened his eyes to gender-based violence. “You realise that a lot of these people are untreated cases of people who never spoke about their own abuse that they have gone through. And people that really don’t recognise the state of mental health and how integral it is to take care of one’s mental health,” he said.
MSF’s health facility is located in Rustenburg because the area is mainly composed of informal settlements where some women depend on men as breadwinners, said Bhelekazi Mdlalose, the clinical activity manager for MSF.
“Trying to help becomes difficult because some [women] still want to go back and stay with [their abusers]. The pain is that she is going back to the same perpetrator. It is difficult for us to remove them from the abuse,” Mdlalose explained.
She pleads with society not to pass judgement on women who choose to go back to violent men. “We need to understand why someone would choose to stay in an abusive relationship. Some of the reasons that abused women come up with are genuine.”
Makgobatlou is now divorced. Her family disowned her for leaving her husband. She insists women must try to regain their lives. “If they still want to stay in the marriage they must set out boundaries. Most importantly they must be very aware of the cycle of abuse … Today he will slap you and later buy [you] a present, and apologise and make peace. He will repeat the cycle. The last present you will get will be the flowers on your grave.”
She said she has taught her two boys that they should never lay their hands on a woman and always engage in healthy relationships. “Even when you marry her, she is not your property.”