“I call myself a survivor because I survived the domestic [violence] attack,” said Mimi Lephoko, 46. She uses a wheelchair because she was paralysed from the waist down in 2006 when her abusive husband shot her three times in the driveway of their home before turning a gun on himself.
“He thought that I was dead before he committed suicide,” said Lephoko of the shooting, which took place in full view of their neighbours and friends in Rondebult, Ekurhuleni. Her miserable and lonely marriage of eight years had taken a toll on her by then. She had no self-esteem and felt caged, but eventually she found the courage to decide that she had had enough.
“It was just difficult to be happy in that marriage and when I decided to walk away… that is when he took a decision to kill both of us,” said Lephoko, who is a board member of the Self-Help Association of Paraplegics in Soweto and co-founder of the non-profit Bring Change In Me, which advocates for disability rights. She is also a speaker who motivates and helps survivors of gender-based violence.
Lephoko and others like her have their work cut out for them. South Africa is reported to have one of the highest rates of violence against women and girls in the world. Much of this is blamed on the unemployment rate – which stood at 34.9% in the third quarter of 2021, rising to 46.6% if using its expanded definition – and the high poverty levels it creates. These levels are higher among women than men and affect African women the most.
According to a Statistics South Africa report on gender-based violence based on assaults that took place between 2018 and 2019, almost 50% of assaults were committed by someone close to the victim. A friend or acquaintance accounted for 22%, a spouse or intimate partner for 15%, and a relative of another household member for 13%. About 11% of assaults were committed by “others”, and a chilling 9% by a “mob or group of persons”.
Data on experience of violence by marital status showed that women who are divorced or separated were more likely than other women to have experienced physical or sexual violence, and the prevalence of physical violence was greater among the less educated as well as the most impoverished.
A desensitised public
One of the most shocking cases recently came to light when the body parts of a young woman were found in a fridge in Protea Glen, Soweto, on 13 November. They were stashed inside a fridge belonging to Flavio Hlabangwane, 26, an actuarial science graduate who was renting a back room at a house in the neighbourhood. The gruesome discovery was made by his new girlfriend, who noticed them while looking for food. She immediately alerted residents nearby and the police were called.
The police later found a human skull buried in a shallow grave next to the R558, though the torso has not been found. The victim is believed to be Hlabangwane’s 23-year-old cousin from Soshanguve in Pretoria, with whom it is alleged he had been having a relationship for five years.
Sadly, the case has not mobilised people nearby – or elsewhere in South Africa – to protest against gender-based violence in their communities on any large scale. On 25 November, Lephoko was with a disappointingly small number of supporters who gathered at Beverly Hills Park in Orlando West, 15km from Protea Glen, for what they called the Walk of Hope.
Held under the theme #Sekwanele (It’s enough), it was organised by the Soweto Business Events Council (Sobec) and coincided with the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
It was a cold Thursday morning when the group of marchers took to the streets and walked 3.2km. Some, like Lephoko, were pushed in their wheelchairs to their final destination: the police station in Orlando.
A petition with 47 signatures was handed over to the station commander, Brigadier Nonhlanhla Kubheka, seeking to raise concerns that the police ignore gender-based violence and femicide. The signatories also demanded that victims be given access to medical care, psychosocial support and legal advice.
In addition, the petition asked for safety centres for women and children in townships within a reachable radius and that abandoned buildings, which are linked to an increase in crime, be used by the business community. It also proposed mobile “safety stations” with clinics and trained nurses, where victims can report to female police officials instead of having to use police stations, which can be intimidating because of male officers’ careless attitude towards victims.
The petition also recommended that the South African Police Service Act be reviewed to ensure more accountability, and that the police receive training in specific areas of law as well as in handling social issues. It also proposed monthly round-table meetings between communities and the police to improve relationships.
Teamwork is essential
“We want assistance because we are the ones that are on the ground doing all the community services,” said Happy Mehlape, Sobec’s chief executive. “So we want to collaborate with them so that they understand the needs and the plights of the community.”
Accepting the petition, Kubheka said: “I’m very privileged to see that the community is very concerned about [gender-based violence]. Together we can do this thing because most of the [violence is] happening inside the [victims’] houses.”
She bemoaned the fact that many women opened cases of gender-based violence only to drop them – words that did not sit well with marcher Mpumi Mevana, 42, who said she was raped and reported it to the police. She was shocked when the alleged perpetrator came to her home and intimidated her and her family, and ended up dropping the case because the police did nothing about it.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think I will ever go report a rape case. I will never do it again after the humiliation that I went through, after the threats to my family and myself,” she said.
Another marcher, Vanessa Myathaza, 33, agreed with Mevana on the police’s incompetence, but said the community had to get involved and fight the scourge among themselves too. “This initiative is our way of saying we are doing something about the wrongs in our community … and we are making sure that we are correcting it. We are starting with the man in the mirror. We teach each other how to treat each other.”
Phozisa Khuphathi, 25, who is visually impaired, said although she had never experienced gender-based violence, she felt unsafe whenever she was around men. “I don’t feel okay when I walk past men, especially a person like me who is blind. I won’t be able to fight for myself. If somebody does anything to me, I won’t even be able to point out that person.”