Vetten, L. (1996). "Man Shoots Wife": Intimate femicide in Gauteng, South Africa. In Crime and Conflict, No. 6, Winter.

 

Lisa Vetten

In Crime and Conflict, No. 6, pp. 1-4, Winter 1996.

Lisa Vetten is the former Manager of the Gender Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Gender has a notable influence on violent behaviour. The violence that women experience differs in both type and form from the violence that men experience. Women, for example, are vulnerable to sexual assault and domestic violence, in a way that men are not.

Morris (1987) has identified some of the following characteristics as being quite specific to crimes against women: most women are victimised by men and are more likely than men to be blamed in some way for their victimisation. Homicides involving women (either as victims or perpetrators) are also understood to be influenced by different dynamics to those involving men. When men are murdered they are typically killed by acquaintances and strangers, and, only occasionally, by a male or female intimate.

Women, by contrast, are most likely to be murdered by male intimates and less frequently by strangers. It was in response to this observation that the term "femicide" was coined. First used at the 1976 International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women, it was developed to emphasise that in some instances, women are murdered for no better reason than being female (Russell and Van de Ven 1976, cited in Stout 1992).

Intimate Femicide

Stout (1992: 133) defined intimate femicide as the "killing of women by intimate male partners" - a definition adopted by this study.

"Male partners" should be understood to include husbands, common-law partners and boyfriends. Men who at the time of the murder were estranged, separated or divorced from their partners still fall within this study's description of a partner. Whether or not others (such as children, or other family members) were killed in conjunction with the woman, did not affect the working definition at this point.

Sources of information for the study were drawn from two archival and documentary sources: inquest records and newspaper reports.

All inquest dockets opened for women in the Johannesburg magisterial district (this includes greater Johannesburg, Lenasia, Soweto and Eldorado Park) during 1994 were scrutinised.

The various causes of death were then categorised according to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD 9th Revision 1975), enabling the researcher to identify a total of 29 murders for analysis.

The relationship between perpetrator and victim became the next point of study.

Newspaper stories reporting on incidents of intimate femicide were drawn from the three largest English newspapers, within the Gauteng region: The Sowetan, The Citizen and The Star. A total of 118 separate such incidents, occurring during the two-year period between 1993 and 1994, were collected from these three newspapers.

Limitations of Findings

Due to time and financial constraints, it was not possible to investigate regional and supreme court criminal records - which would have substantially increased the number of murders available for analysis. When a strong case exists against an accused, it bypasses the inquest courts entirely, being referred directly to the regional or supreme courts for criminal prosecution. A more substantial analysis of all records may therefore highlight different trends.

During the study, it became evident that newspaper reports reflected a racial bias, being more likely to focus on the murders of white women than on the murders of women of other race groups. Different trends may possibly emerge then, from sources that are more racially representative.

As this was a pilot study, it must be acknowledged that the statistics and information presented cannot be generalised to the population as a whole.

Many of the trends described in the study will need to be substantiated by other sources of empirical data, as well as interviews with family and other actors. The study did, however, provide some insights into the phenomenon, as well as identify potential areas for further study.

Selected Findings

Sixteen (or 56%) of the 29 murders identified in the inquest records were committed by male partners or friends. This strengthens the hypothesis that women are at greater risk of being murdered in familiar environments by men known to them, than they are at risk from strangers in strange places. It is ironic (if not tragic) that women continue to be warned incessantly of "stranger danger" when intimate partners and acquaintances emerge as the greater threat to their safety and security.

This study identified 130 separate incidents of intimate femicide. As 11 of these cases occurred prior to 1993, then at least 119 incidents of intimate femicide took place during 1993 and 1994. In other words, a woman was killed by her partner every six days during this two year period. But this figure needs to be treated as an underestimate.

While collecting reports, a number of other cases were found where, at the time of the report, the woman was still alive, although in a critical condition. It is possible that these women may have died at a later stage (unfortunately, there is no media follow-up of these cases).

Newspapers also did not report on every murder that occurred; only a quarter of the cases in the inquest sample received newspaper coverage.

Considering the prevalence of intimate femicide, it is essential that further research attempt to identify specific risk factors. One such factor suggested by this study is divorce or the ending of the relationship.

At least 23 out of the total 130 cases examined appear to have been directly prompted by the partner's inability to deal with this ending. Perhaps the most trivial motive for murder was that precipitating Christina Kunene's death. When her partner returned home one night to find no dinner waiting for him (because Ms Kunene had had no money to purchase food), he beat her so severely that she died of her injuries a few days later.

Another priority may be educational programmes, aimed at primary and high school pupils. Approximately 14 women of the newspaper sample of 118 were estimated to be 20 years and younger, the youngest victim being 14 years old at the time of her death. The youth of these women is cause for concern as it suggests that young women may become involved in abusive relationships while still adolescents.

To date though, little or no attention (in South Africa at least) has been focused on violence within dating relationships; it appears to have been assumed that violence occurs only in long-term or marital relationships. This assumption ignores the fact that young women start dating fairly early, often going out with men quite a few years their senior.

Young women and men, lacking experience in relationships may depend upon romanticised and idealised depictions of love. Possessive, controlling behaviour, for example, is interpreted as "true love" while male sexual aggression is considered normal, even desirable (Levy, 1991).

Left unchallenged, these caricatures of relationships, and male and female behaviour, may be all that is available to adolescents seeking information and role models. And certainly within the larger context of South African society, it has been noted that

the increase in township-based youth violence has most notably been accompanied by a dramatic increase in violence that is specifically directed against young women. (Mokwena 1991: 17)

Provocation

Men who kill their partners do not stand apart or isolated from broader society; they are in fact very much part of a society well able to understand - if not accept - that some men should feel an overwhelming urge to kill their partners. The role of provocation, for instance, was frequently included as a mitigating factor in a host of judgements. It seems then, that judicial officers, among others, subscribe to folk theories of the male mind which assume that it is an unbearable provocation for a man to discover his wife's infidelity - his violent response is understandable under the circumstances (Daly and Wilson 1992).

Elena Tamas

"Mr Tamas said he had lost control after being provoked by his wife's allegations" (The Citizen, 5 May 1994). These included her admission that she had been drugging Mr Tamas with sleeping tablets so that she could sleep with a younger boarder. No doubt adding insult to injury, Ms Tamas went on to say that she "even had oral sex with him" (the boarder) (The Star, 5 May 1994). According to Mr Tamas's testimony, the provocation offered by such a statement was so great that he experienced an overwhelming attack of "non-insane autonomism". During this bout of amnesia he beat his wife to death by banging her head against a wall.

Dolly

Provocation was against accepted in the trial of Johannes Mncwabe who killed his girlfriend Dolly (no surname available) out of "extreme provocation" (The Star, 17 February 1994). Dolly fell and knocked her head after being hit by Mncwabe when he found out that she had slept with a colleague.

Patricia Strydom

Patricia Strydom was beaten to death the day after she was married. The events leading to her death began with an argument that ended with Ms Strydom saying that she wanted to stay with a relative. Before she was able to drive away, her husband pulled her from the car by the hair and dragged her into the house.

In the ensuing fight, Ms Strydom accidentally knocked over a lamp given to her as a wedding present by her husband. When Mr Strydom asked why she had broken the lamp, Ms Strydom apparently responded by saying that she had only married him to spite her previous husband. "I completely lost control" said Strydom, explaining why he had kicked and punched his wife and beat her head against a wall. Magistrate H Wolmarans described the murder as a "tragedy", prompted in part by alcohol and provocation (The Star, 23 June 1993).

Elizabeth Makhowane

Elijah Nzibande was also ostensibly provoked into murdering Elizabeth Makhowane according to Justice Els. Ms Makhowane had told Mr Nzibande to move out of the shack as another man was moving in that night. Mr Nzibande said she then assaulted him and hit him on the head with a brick. Admittedly, this is an aggressive action but it does not justify murder - for Mr Nzibande retaliated by setting the shack alight some time later in the day. Both Elizabeth Makhowane and her two young daughters were burnt to death (The Sowetan, 24 February 1993).

This understanding of provocation fits neatly into what American criminologists Wilson and Daly (1992) have termed male sexual proprietariness. This is defined as:

A tendency to think of women as sexual and reproductive 'property' that they can own and exchange … . Proprietariness implies a more encompassing mind-set (than jealousy), referring not just to the emotional force of one's feelings of entitlement but to a more pervasive attitude towards social relationships. Proprietary entitlements in people have been conceived and institutionalised as identical to proprietary entitlements in land, chattels, and other economic resources.
Francesca Gobbi

Francesca Gobbi was shot in the head by her ex-husband Guiseppe di Blasi in September 1992. Despite the fact that the couple had been divorced the previous year, di Blasi had continued to harass Ms Gobbi, assaulting her, as well as attempting to kill her on at least two occasions. Ms Gobbi eventually obtained a British High Court injunction against di Blasi and came to South Africa (The Star, 25 August 1993).

This is his explanation as to why he shot Ms Gobbi:

I felt I would be committing an act of mercy killing her … she looked straight into my eyes. She knew it was the end. She tried to run but I shot her in the back. I was determined to kill her. I felt no guilt. The guilt was hers alone. I was the victim, not she. (The Star, 24 August 1993).

Di Blasi seems to have thought of Ms Gobbi as a "thing" that belonged to him - a perception shared by defence psychologist Hendrik Venter. At one point in the trial, Ms Gobbi is described as the most precious possession he (di Blasi) ever had. Di Blasi may also have believed that Ms Gobbi's primary purpose in life was the satisfaction of his needs. The reciprocal recognition of her needs appears never to have been considered, so Ms Gobbi was apparently killed for the humiliation and dishonour she brought him by suing for divorce.

Apparently di Blasi found this dishonour particularly unbearable, "deeply rooted" as he was in Sicilian culture where marriage was considered sacred, divorce unacceptable and "where men were quick to defend their honour when it came to their women" (The Citizen, 28 August 1993). Lest di Blasi be thought of as an aberration, psychologist Hendrik Venter explained that he had since been approached by a Portuguese man who said he identified with di Blasi's humiliation because women belonged to their husbands and it was important for di Blasi to "keep that woman" (The Citizen, 28 August 1993).

This combination of ethnic stereotyping, linked to descriptions of di Blasi's apparent psychological torments, appears to have been successful in securing di Blasi a four year prison sentence. It also appears to have touched Justice D M Williams' sensibilities deeply for he said that:

behind the bare facts of the deliberate killing of di Blasi's ex-wife, lay a story of heartache and obsessive love which evokes much compassion … the court felt deeply sorry for di Blasi but deplored his action. (The Sowetan, 24 September 1993).

This particular case presents a number of challenges to anyone interested in preventing intimate femicide. Legal remedies, in the form of divorce and a High Court injunction, quite obviously did not protect Ms Gobbi, mainly because di Blasi seemed so determined to kill her.

In this instance, the kind of social change that does not encourage men to think of their partners as "things" that they own, is essential. The myth of the hot-blooded Mediterranean with its quaint notions of male honour can also not be condoned.

The typical response of society to domestic violence has been indifference and denial - a combination very likely to foster an environment that ignores intimate femicide.

Janine Bellingan's fear that her husband would kill her appears, by and large, to have been dismissed as the fantasies of a "drama queen" who seemed "somewhat neurotic". One witness in her husband's murder trial stated "we didn't really want to hear too much about it - and we were not sure if it was factual" (The Citizen, 20 April 1994).

Or there is the example offered by academics at Pretoria University. Testifying in mitigation of sentencing for David Jacobs, Professor Schotz said that Mr Jacobs' academic work was very valuable and it would, from a scientific point of view, be a shame if he was removed from society (The Citizen, 9 June 1993). This perspective can only reached - and maintained - if one is prepared to ignore the victim and phenomenon entirely.

Finally, preventing intimate femicide may sometimes be as simple as responding to a woman's screams. After Nomali Hadebe was murdered by her partner, a fellow resident said, "Her screams went on for three hours. We were able to sleep only when she stopped screaming." During these three hours Ms Hadebe was "beaten all over her body, given electric shocks, stabbed and hacked on the head" (The Sowetan, 1 November 1994). It appears that nobody had thought to investigate the cause of Ms Hadebe's screams.

As more research into intimate femicide is initiated, and strategies implemented to combat intimate femicide, it is hoped that men's proprietal attitudes towards women may one day be remembered as an example of archaic folly. In the meantime, what is needed from society is a little more compassion and sorrow for the victim and a little less identification with the perpetrator.

References

Levy, Barrie. 1991. Dating Violence: Young women in danger. Seattle: Seal Press.

Mokwena, S. 1991. The Era of Jackrollers: Contextualising the rise of youth gangs in Soweto. Paper presented at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Seminar No. 7, 30 October.

Morris, A. 1987. Women, Crime and Criminal Justice. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Stout, K. in Radford, J. and Russell, D.E.H. 1992. Femicide: The politics of women killing. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Wilson, M. and Daly, M. in Radford, J. and Russell, D.E.H. 1992. Femicide: The politics of women killing. Buckingham: Open University Press.

© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation