Rachel Mashego: Lost her son after her ex-partner set fire to the room in which her children were sleeping. Picture: Supplied
Rachel Mashego: Lost her son after her ex-partner set fire to the room in which her children were sleeping. Picture: Supplied

Inside Roots Butchery in the town of Acornhoek in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga, a butcher in red overalls guides a slab of beef through a meat saw. The blade screeches through bone. Around him, workers are preparing packages for Saturday morning shoppers. To the left, a curtain of raw sausage hangs from stainless steel rails.

There’s a normality to the scene that belies the trauma of recent events.

One Monday in September, Roots employees say, two of their colleagues didn’t report for work.

One was Gloria Sekome, a cashier who’d recently transferred to a branch in nearby Hazyview. The other was her former partner Danboy Nkuna, who worked 10km away, at the Roots outlet near Mahushu.

After six strained years, Sekome had recently ended her relationship with Nkuna.

Three days before Sekome’s co-workers noticed her absence, Clacy Sekome had received a panicked call from her daughter as she returned home from the butchery.

She sounded terrified.

"They’re blocking my way," Sekome had whispered, but the call cut out. When Clacy phoned back, Sekome’s cellphone was off.

The next day, Clacy tried to report the situation to the local police station, but was sent from pillar to post. Having had no success at two precincts, she finally arrived at the Bushbuckridge police station, where Sekome had opened a protection order against Nkuna in 2018. There, she waited for four hours before she was helped.

At 11am the next day, Clacy received a call from the police, asking her to join them at the state mortuary.

"I found my child lying there with her throat cut," she says, her voice breaking.

Seven months later, Nkuna is awaiting trial for Sekome’s murder.

In mourning: Clacy Sekome holds a picture of her daughter Gloria, a victim of GBV. Picture: Supplied
In mourning: Clacy Sekome holds a picture of her daughter Gloria, a victim of GBV. Picture: Supplied

Sekome was one of three women murdered, allegedly by their intimate partners, in that September week in Bushbuckridge, according to local media reports.

In a fourth, similar event, Rachel Mashego’s ex-partner tried to strangle her. When she escaped, he poured petrol on the floor of the room where their children were sleeping, and lit a match.

The man had, in Mashego’s telling, been threatening violence for years. He’d say: "I want to see a corpse come from this yard," she says.

Her eyes are cloudy as she describes sprinting away with five-year-old Tokelo in her arms. "I ran with him. He [the boy’s father] was chasing us with a stick."

Tokelo died in hospital shortly after.

Mashego’s former partner was arrested, but released on R500 bail the next day.

"We have not been OK [since that night]," she says from inside the scorched room. "None of us are OK."

‘We need help’

Akimo Mabuso shuffles in a plastic chair in a tiny church hall near the municipal building where he works. He’s a social worker at the state-funded Vuwiselo Victim Empowerment Programme Centre in Acornhoek.

In this part of the world, stories like those of Mashego and Sekome are everywhere, Mabuso says; his workdays are filled with harrowing tales. "Acornhoek is full of gender-based violence [GBV]," he says.

He believes that the tide is rising — a result of fallout from the pandemic, the ensuing lockdowns and declining employment (unemployment in Bushbuckridge is at 45%-50%, according to the municipality’s 2019 development plan — far higher than the provincial and national rate).

Police statistics would seem to confirm the trend.

Between 2015 and 2019, the annual number of reported murders in Bushbuckridge rose steadily from 21 to 32, according to police data collated by data journalism centre Media Hack and Bhekisisa — an increase of about 50%. (In 2020, the number returned to 2015 levels.) Over the same period, annual reported rapes increased from 91 to 95.

While it’s not possible to compare Bushbuckridge’s statistics with those of other police stations — the police don’t provide enough data to do so — the National Shelter Movement has noted a steady and more broadly based increase of GBV in Mpumalanga, says provincial representative Fisani Mahlangu.

"We need support," she says.

But additional help may be some way off. When, in September 2020, police minister Bheki Cele announced SA’s 30 GBV hotspots, not one town in Bushbuckridge was on the list. Nor was a single Mpumalanga district.

Limpopo and the Northern Cape were also not included. The list was made up mostly of urban towns and settlements such as Diepsloot and Alexandra in Joburg, Khayelitsha, Gugulethu and Mitchells Plain in Cape Town, Mthatha (Eastern Cape) and Umlazi (KwaZulu-Natal).

Having been flagged, the 30 centres will each receive additional support — "extra resources and services, such as permanent desks dedicated to attending to GBV cases, DNA evidence collection kits and shelters", GBV expert Lisa Vetten wrote for Bhekisisa in November. They’ll also benefit from "campaigns and strategies … to raise awareness of gendered forms of violence and abuse".

Mabuso and his Bushbuckridge colleagues, however, won’t have access to any of this largesse.

Vetten considers the data used to identify the GBV hotspots problematic. For a start, she says, the police are inconsistent with the type of details they record. The crime stats used to calculate the hotspots are for rape; kidnapping with the purpose of committing a sexual offence; trafficking, especially for purposes of sexual exploitation; murder and attempted murder within the context of domestic violence; and assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.

But in 2019/2020, for instance, the police provided no statistics on trafficking. "They also didn’t disaggregate the statistics of their top 30 stations lists — for murder, attempted murder and assault with the intent to cause grievous bodily harm — by gender," Vetten says.

"So it’s not possible to speculate on how many of these crimes occurred within the context of a domestic relationship. There is also no breakdown of the number of kidnappings occurring in the context of sexual offences."

It’s not only messy data that raises questions about how the hotspots were identified; the police have also failed to control for population size. Because police stations are ranked according to the total number of cases reported, those serving more densely populated areas feature more prominently, she explains.

"Not having adjusted station figures for population size may help explain why 24 of the 30 hotspots are found in the three most populous provinces, and none is in the least populated province."

Identifying where women are at particular risk of GBV and taking action can make a huge difference, Vetten says. "But you need to be sure you’ve pinpointed the right spots."

The police service, however, stand by the figures, which were verified by Stats SA, says department spokesperson Lirandzu Themba.

And the hotspot list is not based on crime stats alone, she says. In identifying the locales, the police also took into consideration information and research from government departments such as social development, and justice & constitutional development.

Picture: 123RF/ Nito500
Picture: 123RF/ Nito500

Unpacking femicide

Sekome’s story is one of femicide — GBV at its most extreme. More narrowly, her murder would count as "intimate femicide", in World Health Organisation (WHO) terms, as it was allegedly perpetrated by a former partner.

Definitions of femicide, however, vary. It’s often understood as the murder of women specifically because victims are women, while broader definitions include the murder of girls and women, the WHO notes.

Some say a narrowing of the definition is problematic, as it means cases are missed.

In her 2020 book, Femicide in South Africa, for example, journalist and researcher Nechama Brodie argues that you cannot separate the patriarchal societal norms that lead to the killing of women from the motives behind their murder. For this reason, any killing of an adult woman should be labelled a femicide; girls should not be included, as the reasons for their killings usually fit a different profile, Brodie writes.

Definitions aside, it’s difficult to get a clear picture of femicide in SA because the police only recently began recording the relationships between killers and their victims in their data — and then only partly.

In 2019, the police could identify the relationship between the perpetrator and victim in just one-fifth of all murders; 16% of those were attributed to a boyfriend or husband. From April to June 2020, 55% of murders related to GBV were perpetrated by husbands or boyfriends, according to the police.

Poverty is a key contributor to intimate partner violence, studies have shown, though the link between the two is complex. For men, not being able to provide economically is linked to perpetration of the crime, according to 2018 research, published in peer-reviewed journal PLOS One. The study authors analysed data from more than 1,000 men and women living in informal settlements in SA.

For women, the link between poverty and food insecurity makes them more susceptible to this kind of violence. Not only is there an increased risk of violence between partners when there’s conflict over food and money, but it’s also harder for women to leave abusive relationships when they rely on their partner’s income to survive.

Childhood trauma, substance abuse and poor mental health have also been linked to intimate partner violence.

Back in Acornhoek, Mabuso’s voice echoes in the empty church. The number of femicides in Bushbuckridge is "not normal", he says. "We need an intervention."

What’s being done?

In an attempt to prevent the kind of violence that led to Sekome’s death, Mabuso’s organisation spreads awareness about the dangers of harmful gender stereotypes at taxi ranks in Bushbuckridge. It’s part of the department of social development’s Men Championing Change programme, launched in 2018, which works with men to help change the social practices driving intimate partner violence and HIV infection.

The organisation also helps victims get back on their feet.

But it’s not enough, Mabuso says; there should be support for perpetrators too.

Back in 2012, nonprofit organisation Sonke Gender Justice ran the One Man Can project in the area as part of a three-year study.

As part of the programme, trained community mobilisers ran five two-day workshops over two years. These aimed to get people to think differently about gender, violence, alcohol use and sexual behaviour.

But researchers who evaluated the project found mixed results, according to a study published in Culture, Health & Sexuality in 2020.

They showed that the best way to prevent violence was to get men to recognise women and children as "human beings, like us". But while men began to show more equitable attitudes about gender as the programme progressed, women didn’t.

Ultimately, the researchers found no statistically significant decrease in intimate partner violence. And where violent behaviour decreased, participants struggled to sustain this.

"Workshops and community activities can be important contributors to reducing violence," the authors wrote, "but [they] may not be enough to sustain the change for people with a history of violence."

For mourning mothers such as Mashego and Clacy, small changes in violent men’s attitudes do little to erase the images of their children’s damaged bodies.

Since Sekome’s death, Clacy has become more vigilant about the whereabouts of her three remaining daughters. "I have this fear for them," she says. "If men are these monsters … [what] boyfriends will they find?"

But violence against women and girls is preventable, according to the authors of a 2020 evidence review for What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women & Girls, a global research nonprofit.

The project evaluated 15 interventions to curb intimate partner violence in Sub-Saharan Africa, and Central and South Asia. Local projects such as Stepping Stones and Creating Futures counted among the initiatives that were found to prevent violence against women and girls.

After reviewing the triumphs and trials of projects in developing countries, What Works identified 10 elements of programme design and rollout that are likely to reduce violence. For example, consistent funding for at least three years is key, as is well-planned training for programme staff.

It’s this kind of evidence that informed SA’s first national strategic plan (NSP) on GBV and femicide, published in March 2020, says SA Medical Research Council researcher Nwabisa Shai.

The 132-page document is supposed to build a co-ordinated response to stop violence against women and children. It outlines six pillars of intervention: accountability; prevention; safety and protection; support; economic upliftment; and information systems.

The NSP has bold five-year goals, including amending 12 pieces of legislation and creating a national database of GBV and femicide that will rely, in part, on disaggregating murder statistics from the police to find out specifics about the relationship between victims and perpetrators.

It’s likely that implementation will be left to civil society, Shai says, making the NSP a "tool to make sure everybody involved is singing from the same hymnbook".

This will make peer-reviewed and research interventions more accessible to implementing organisations and departments, and allow the work of community projects that may have been making an impact for years to be documented, Shai says.

"The challenge we must overcome is the belief that prevention is optional."

Red tape slows the rollout

But it seems that the rollout of the NSP has been hamstrung by the government’s bureaucratic processes.

The interim steering committee that drafted the document delivered the NSP on time in October 2019, but it was approved only in March 2020, missing the deadline to get funding from the National Treasury, says committee secretary Sibongile Mthembu.

And, as the committee’s mandate lapsed in March 2020, responsibility had to be handed to the department of women, youth & persons with disabilities. That has apparently left many in civil society unsure of who is in charge of what.

Part of the problem is that the council meant to oversee the NSP rollout has not been established, due to disagreements about how the body should be set up, and delays caused by lockdowns, Mthembu says.

In the absence of a council, the department apparently asked stakeholders to assist in setting achievable goals for the first 100 days of the NSP, starting in March 2020. (The department did not respond to Bhekisisa’s requests for comment.)

But even then, implementation was slow. With the plan not yet funded, many activists and organisations volunteered to keep the process ticking along, Mthembu says. But when organisations asked the government for help, by paying for data, for example, department officials argued that such organisations are already subsidised by the state.

An online repository that tracked weekly progress for the 100 days reveals mixed results from the six teams (one for each pillar of the NSP).

"No-one really knows what the NSP implementation actually looks like and the loose process can at times lead to dead ends and frustration," one team said.

In Mthembu’s team, efforts to start creating a national database on GBV went nowhere because of the voluntary nature of the work.

"That’s where we’re failing again," she says, "expecting women to volunteer their time."

Additional resources may ameliorate the problem. According to the 2021 Budget Review, the department of women is set to receive R15m over the next three years to establish the council and roll out the NSP. It seems a small price to pay, given that consulting firm KPMG in 2017 estimated that GBV was costing SA R20bn-R40bn a year, or 1% of GDP.

Everyday reminders

Back in Acornhoek, the vegetables in Clacy’s yard are ready for harvest, but she can’t bear the thought of crossing the yard to dig them up. She knows memories of her daughter will overwhelm her as soon as she lifts the first handful of soil, reminding her that these plants made up Sekome’s favourite meal.

Clacy knows she’ll also find her daughter in the soapy water when she washes the family’s clothes.

"I can’t sleep," she says, fumbling with a disintegrating tissue. "This will haunt me until I die."

*This story was produced by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. It was supported by the Sylvester Stein fellowship, awarded to Bhekisisa by the Canon Collins Educational & Legal Assistance Trust. Subscribe to Bhekisisa’s newsletter here

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