Challenges from Killer's Life of Misery

Challenges from Killer's Life of Misery

Thus is the story of "Johanna Smit", sentenced in 1997 to 20 years for the murder of her abusive husband.

Johanna met her second husband "Thinus" through a magazine advertisement. Within four months of meeting for the first time, they were married. And so began a long history of broken promises, leading systematically to Johanna's near-complete dependence on "Thinus".

Once married, Johanna was forbidden to work. Unable to keep up payments on her car, her brother took over the payments and the car. Thinus refused to pay her children's school fees and Johanna had to approach the school principal for a subsidy. She also had to apply for state maintenance when Thinus refused to support the children's clothing. Johanna would have to borrow money from Thinus and pay him back once she had received the maintenance money.

Thinus monitored and controlled food, forcing Johanna and her children to live on bread, water and coffee. He, however, often took meat and tinned food to work and would get up in the middle of the night to prepare himself meals. He also attempted to control every aspect of the children's lives, and they soon became scared of him.

Thinus demanded sex in exchange for jewellery and other gifts. Despite loathing the experience, Johanna never refused, feeling that sex was her duty.

Made to feel very unwelcome by Thinus, family and friends stopped visiting, leaving Johanna increasingly isolated. Depressed and on Prozac, Johanna left Thinus in 1994 and began divorce proceedings.

Thinus begged Johanna to return. Having been persuaded to give him another chance, Johanna went back. But her anxiety, fear and sense of entrapment continued. Unable to speak to anyone, she kept her problems to herself.

In late 1995 Johanna was issued with an ultimatum: abide by Thinus' every rule, or leave. Although Johanna approached a local Christian organisation for accommodation, they could not assist her and nor could her family. With nowhere to go, she returned home and lived in her daughter's room. After a week, Thinus begged Johanna to return and the pattern of jewellery for sex was repeated.

Johanna realised she could not end the abused by leaving, and nor could she hope that Thinus would stop the abuse. The cumulative impact of years of abuse was taking its emotional toll and she was effectively trapped in the relationship, unable to rely on outside sources for help. Suicide appeared the only way out.

And then two critical events occurred which played no small part in triggering the murder:
Johanna's daughter was raped by a family friend, and Thinus exposed himself to her daughter. Johanna felt a welling up of revulsion, hatred and fear as she realised that her daughter was not safe, and that there were no limits to Thinus's destruction.

With the assistance of her daughter, her domestic worker and two men, Johanna killed Thinus.

Her actions present a number of challenges, not only to our understanding of domestic violence and its consequences, but also to the nature of the assistance we provide women in abusive relationships. At the time she killed her husband, the law offered no protection against emotional, psychological or economic abuse, and marital rape was only criminalised in 1993.

But most of all, her actions challenge us to rethink the way we respond to women who kill their abusive partners – as well as the limits of the law.

Whatever our answers to these questions, they're too late for Johanna. In July her appeal on sentence was dismissed.

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

Originally published in The Sunday Independent, 27 August 2000.

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CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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