‘ Our bodies are crime scenes:South afroca mirdered women

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Tshegofatso Pule was eight months pregnant when she was murdered and her body hung from a tree on June 5, 2020. This is her story and the story of the other women murdered by men on that day in a country where a woman is killed every four hours.

Police walk past demonstrators during a protest against gender-based violence outside the parliament in Cape Town in 2020 [File: Sumaya Hisham/Reuters]
Police walk past demonstrators during a protest against gender-based violence outside the parliament in Cape Town in 2020 [File: Sumaya Hisham/Reuters]

  As the winter sun dipped below the horizon on a cold Wednesday evening last June, hundreds of women, men and children gathered sombrely on the streets of Meadowlands in Soweto.

Dressed in black, and clutching pink balloons and flickering candles, the crowd – some hand-in-hand, many with tears in their eyes – made their way to the home of Tshegofatso Pule, the words of an old anti-apartheid struggle song echoing in the air around them.

“Senzeni na, senzeni na (what have we done?),” they sang, paying their final respects to a life lost too soon. It would be the first of many gatherings in her name.

Five days earlier, on June 5, 2020, a group of residents from Durban Deep in Roodepoort, a residential area seven kilometres (four miles) from Meadowlands, stumbled upon a spine-chilling sight: the lifeless body of a heavily pregnant woman, blood dripping from her torso to her toes, hanging from a tree in broad daylight.

They made multiple phone calls to other community members but their efforts failed to identify her. So the group of men took pictures and videos of the gruesome scene and started circulating them on social media. “The footage was posted to try and find her family,” said one witness, Tshepo Bodibe, who had been summoned to the crime scene by a friend.

On June 8, the devastated family of Tshegofatso, who had been searching for their daughter for days, saw the gut-wrenching viral video of a woman hanging from a withered grey tree. They recognised her as their ‘Tshego’, as she was affectionately known.

The 28-year-old had been eight months pregnant when she was shot in the chest and then hanged.

“Nothing could ever prepare you for this,” says Tshego’s childhood friend, Zinhle Zwane, as tears well up in her eyes. A distraught Zinhle had first shared the news of her friend’s gruesome death on Twitter. It sent shockwaves across the country, sparking outcries from women, politicians and celebrities.

Among those who took to social media to express their shock in the wake of the killing was former Miss Universe, Zozibini Tunzi, who tagged the South African president in a tweet, expressly saying “I am not okay! This is not okay! Mr President, we are dying!”

Zinhle’s smile perseveres across her tear-stained face as her mind wanders back to the good memories she shared with her friend. The pair met 22 years ago when they were just six years old. Their mothers before them, had also been close friends. But the line is now cut; her child will never get a chance to be friends with Tshego’s daughter, who died in the womb along with her mother that day.

“As women, we are not safe. We can fight, march and raise awareness, the reality is that we are not safe,” Zinhle says.

One of eight women

In South Africa, a woman is killed every four hours. On June 5 last year – the day Tshego was killed – she became yet another statistic: one of eight women brutally murdered by men in South Africa that day.

We know the names of two of the others: Luyanda Nkambule, 29, whose life was cut short in her home in Secunda, Mpumalanga province, and Nompumelelo Tshaka, 45, who was mutilated and her body discarded in Mthatha, in the Eastern Cape.

For two of the others, we know a bit of their story: in KwaZulu-Natal, two young nurses were brutally killed on their way home from St Apollinaris Hospital, allegedly by an ex-boyfriend of one of the victims.

But the other three are merely numbers. The grim reality is that femicide is grossly underreported in the media, and police reports often strip victims of their identity, turning them into statistics.

According to the human rights organisation, Centre for Constitutional Rights, the femicide rate in South Africa is five times the global average. In the first two weeks of June 2020, 21 women were reportedly murdered by men in the country. But we may never know the names, faces and stories of all of them.

For South African women, the familiar feeling of fear and collective trauma has shown itself in desperate pleas on social media, urging the government to take action against femicide.

Days following the public outcry after Tshego’s killing, President Cyril Ramaphosa released a statement condemning the surge in violence against women and children in the country. In the statement, he urged communities to “end the culture of silence and speak up”, adding “it could save your lives”.

But for many young South African women, like Beloved Sechele, his words rang hollow. The law student replied under his statement posted on Twitter, “This is dismissive and hurtful because we have articulated our troubles and reported many times.” She went on to say, “We are literally suffering and this feels like yet another brush-over of our concerns.”

Her sentiments were echoed by Monique Smith, a political science student at the University of Pretoria, who fired back in the Twitter comments, “Mr President has shown that when he wants to [tackle an issue] he will.” She continued, “Look at how he worked with many different leaders to try to minimise the impact of COVID-19. How quickly laws and bans were enforced. He doesn’t give gender-based violence the same energy because he doesn’t want to.”


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