HomeArticlesA fist and a hard place

A fist and a hard place

Some women find it hard to leave their abusers for economic and emotional reasons and feel ‘stuck’ in their situation.

Phumla Ndlovu’s* partner Xolile Silo* started drinking at nine that Monday morning. He then left their house in Roodepan township, near Kimberley in the Northern Cape, and headed for the local tavern.

It was just weeks ago: March 23.

“I was lying on the couch watching TV when he came back later that evening,” Ndlovu (31) recalls. “He had been drinking the entire day, so he was extremely drunk.”

A night awaited Ndlovu that would free her from abuse but also leave her shunned and destitute.

Silo changed from his sandals into his work boots – he was employed as a soldier at the nearby military base. Then he demanded money.

“I said I didn’t have money and would only have some in April,” Ndlovu said.

Silo was the breadwinner, but Ndlovu did get a small income from an informal money-lending business.

She knew what was coming when Silo didn’t accept her explanation – they had been living together for eight years.

“It’s not your money, it is our money,” Silo shouted and started to beat her. “He slapped me across my face and then started using his army boots to kick my shins.”

Ongoing abuse

Scenes like these had become all too familiar over their years together.

Nldovu had been admitted to hospital several times because of the abuse she received. Ndlovu said that in 2011 Silo poured boiling water over her face and arm for which she needed emergency medical treatment.

“But I told police that the water fell on me while I was cleaning,” she said.

“I covered the story because I was scared for his career and I didn’t want him to get arrested.”

After another bout of abuse in January this year, Ndlovu went to the Northern Cape High Court requesting a protection order against Silo. But before February 4, when the two were due to appear in court, he begged her to drop the request and she obliged.

“He promised not to hit me again,” she said.

Lisa Vetten, a researcher focusing on domestic violence and who is based at the University of the Witwatersrand, said it is not uncommon for victims of abuse to protect their abusers from the law as there is often a “fear that if he goes the family will struggle economically”.

She said the legal system allows for women to report cases of abuse to the police and go to shelters for protection but “many women don’t necessarily want to have their husbands or boyfriends arrested or imprisoned, they just want the violence to stop”.

Police intervention

But on March 23 Ndlovu’s 10-year-old son became so terrified when he witnessed Silo beating his mother that he ran to the police station for help.

Silo, knowing where the boy had gone, fetched his gun from the boot of his car.

As soon as the police arrived he opened fire on them.

During the shoot-out Silo injured a police officer, but Ndlovu begged the police to spare him.

“I asked the police ‘Don’t shoot him!’ but they carried on shooting and shooting,” she said. “I then called for Silo inside the house, but didn’t hear a response.”

Silo was dead.

Mental health

Vetten said that, although it may be difficult to understand why women protect their abusers, domestic violence cases are “complex” and are often intertwined with financial, family-related and emotional complications such as mental health problems.

Ndlovu tried to commit suicide in the beginning of 2013 but when her son found her unconscious after taking a number of tablets, he called an ambulance and she recovered in hospital.

Vetten said depression is strongly associated with being abused where women may feel “there is no way out”, either through trying to help the man recover or through charging him criminally.

Research has shown that domestic violence is the most common cause of post-traumatic stress disorder among South African women. The mental health condition is triggered by a terrifying event(s) and leads to symptoms such as “avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, or changes in emotional actions”, the United States-based medical research organisation Mayo Clinic states on its website.

Problems persist for victim 

Silo will be buried on Saturday at his family’s home in the Eastern Cape. Ndlovu will attend the funeral, but his family has not offered their support to her.

“It’s a tough time now. His family has thrown me away. And they know exactly what happened because when we would go visit them in the Eastern Cape he would do the same thing there,” she said.

Since Silo’s death, her mother-in-law has “been calling me names” and has even blamed her for his death.

“Often the abusive man’s family is not supportive, especially if they lost him under violent circumstances. They may be looking for someone to blame, which doesn’t help the abused woman at all and can lead to difficult feelings of self-blame on top of the shock,” said Vetten.

After Silo was shot, Nldovu remembers “staring” at the scene in front of her. She seemed to have forgotten the abuse and deeply regretted his death.

“I am so dependent,” she said. “He was responsible for my life, to maintain me and my children also.”

Vetten said: “Often when someone is dead you don’t remember the less beautiful part of him, you only remember what’s good.”

* Not their real names.

Persomé Oliphant is a Bhekisisa fellow sponsored by the United Nations Population Fund.