Defend Truth

BOOK REVIEW

Wake up – or victims of abuse in the home or intimate partner violence will forever remain mere numbers

Wake up – or victims of abuse in the home or intimate partner violence will forever remain mere numbers

Nechama Brodie’s new book might be, in the author’s words, ‘full of death, and dead bodies’, but it is mostly a call to all of us to assist the living, because ‘the living are the ones who need justice’.

This is not your average bedtime reading. 

The last line of Nechama Brodie’s new non-fiction work, Domestic Terror: Intimate partner violence in South Africa is probably the best summary of what the book is about:

“This is a book full of death, and dead bodies, but really it is a call to assist the living: the living are the ones who need justice.”

The book starts with the words… no, it starts with a photo. The cover photo is, at first glance, an image of a solemn but ordinary-to-plain-looking, middle-class house. Look at it for a few seconds and the saturation of the blues, the tightly trimmed lawn and the dark windows start to tug at your innards. 

Then you look above the roof of the house and you wonder if that eerie orb is the moon or the sun, and you open the book and descend into the world of bleak desolation of the women abused and beaten – often to death, in their own homes. Or in the homes of their “loved ones”, the dreaded and sometimes deadly intimate partners of the title. 

There is little that is not known about violence in relationships that is explained in this book – except possibly how the women managed to endure savage beatings and ill-treatment for months and years and even, in the case of 71-year-old Beatrice, decades — before the inevitable, fatal outcome.

And as the author states right at the start: 

“This has happened before.” 

A reader might add: “and is happening now and will again”. If the reader does not add that line on reading the opening, he/she/they will do so by the time they close the book.

But while this book may tell us quite a few things we know about violence in relationships, this is not a retelling of things we know. It is a wake-up call and an important message on how, as the French say, “the more things change, the more they stay the same” – but the writer is urging us to be aware that things only stay the same if we let them and we, that is you and I and all of us who make up society at large, need to stop letting things stay the same.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Better information is the best weapon to battle violence against women

The book contains a wealth of information on the legal system in South Africa as it pertains to domestic abuse, the abuse of women and children and especially femicide and intimate partner abuse and intimate femicide – which is the death of a victim at the hands of their intimate partner.

The particular landscape of patriarchy and women as chattel, even to this day in some sectors of society and mindsets, is mapped out by showing how the law as it relates to women and their rights evolved. How very few rights they had and how even today the rights they do have are often only supported or realised in certain situations. Poorer, less educated women have less support etc. Which does not mean educated, financially stable women are not victims of domestic terror.

You do not have to be a feminist or a psychologist or even a woman to read this book. Being a South African, the levels of violence inflicted on women and girls in your country should make you want to read this book, as you surely know and love a few women and girls – be they sister, mother, lover, wife, girlfriend, aunt, grandmother, niece or friend.

But beyond your loved ones, what about everyone having a right to safety and to be able to report abuse without suffering secondary victimisation? 

The writer makes excellent use of actual court cases and also incidents – which is too tame a word sometimes – of domestic terror and intimate partner abuse and femicide which have been reported on by the news industry. And exposes some of these for the bias they often show against the victim, who even in 2023 is still seen as sometimes having been responsible for their partner’s vicious attacks on them. Or being fools for staying in the relationship.

We need to know that if an intimate partner attacks their “loved one” once, they will do it again. We need to know about “murder by instalments” and how a woman is more likely to be killed by a man she is cohabiting with, be it boyfriend or husband. What is “coercive control” and how do we recognise it?

We need to let it sink in that a woman who has a child who is not the offspring of her intimate partner is also more likely to be killed by her violent intimate partner. And we need to know that a controlling man will sometimes kill the children first – even if they are biologically his, like police superintendent Marius van der Westhuizen (three children) – to keep control over their partner.

We need to stop asking why she stayed and look at why she could not leave. Like the female judge who freely admitted that when dealing as a person with battered or abused women, she started to understand that because she herself had grown up in a loving home, insulated from any form of domestic violence and abuse, she at first had not understood why women did not just leave.

She reached a point of self-awareness where she could realise that she had no idea of what it was like to have children and no financial means to support them or keep a roof over their heads. Beyond economics there are control mechanisms and psychological drives, emotional abuse and control, that also stop women from leaving.

And if you are the family member or friend who tells or has told a woman to “try again” or “forgive him”, be like the judge and think it through – does your friend/sister/colleague always wear long-sleeved tops? Or high collars? Why? Are they hiding regular bruises? Are their children “clumsy” and often “falling down”?

At the point that a woman asks you – us – to help, this is very probably the incident that drives her to desperation, but it is not the first incident.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Nechama Brodie challenges myths of the ‘white genocide’ in her book Farm Killings in South Africa

The book also casts a painful spotlight on the role of the police and what is often their lack of action. Are you the police officer who has lost the docket? Who does not want to open a case because she is poor and dirty – like Uretta Nicholas – and dishevelled from the rape and beating she had suffered for hours before finding an opportunity to escape and making her way to the police station, to be ignored and turned away. Why are you a police officer then?

The book looks at how violence is reported on by the police and how it is often just a numbers exercise – data points and statistics, which sometimes conflate victim with perpetrator by writing about murder that takes place “in a girlfriend/boyfriend relationship”, which does not say who did what to whom. Or speaking of the murder of a spouse by a spouse – so in some reports, the numbers are just numbers.

Society needs to pay attention and law enforcement and personnel employed at related support agencies need to do their jobs and put personal misogyny aside – or all of these women, and the women to come, will only ever be numbers. Even this is highlighted by the author, who says: 

“…it is clear that while we are very good at marches and hashtags, when it comes time to back and believe individual women who need our support before they are killed, we are not succeeding.” DM

Domestic Terror: Intimate partner violence in South Africa by Nechama Brodie is published by Kwela.

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