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BEYOND THE FACADE ANALYSIS

Behind beauty of Montagu lies the ugliness of gender-based violence and police inertia

Behind beauty of Montagu lies the ugliness of gender-based violence and police inertia
An idyllic view of Montagu. (Photo: Allan Duckworth)

Montagu police say they adopt a multi-disciplinary strategy to help victims of domestic abuse and gender-based violence. However, victims say they receive little to no help at all.

This country town some 200km outside of Cape Town, in the Langeberg Municipality, is a beautiful tourist Mecca. It’s dark side — gender-based violence and in some cases victim-shaming police who, by all accounts, would rather turn women away than arrest perpetrators.

Approaching from Robertson, one passes picturesque rock striations where the road has been cut out of the side of a hill (the area is known for its rock formations, amongst other things) and an almost dry river. A hot wind offers no relief as it just serves to blow the dry heat against sun-baked skin and tries to scorch your eyeballs.

When Daily Maverick visits at the start of February, the town is searingly hot and at 11am the temperature is already at 39 degrees Celsius.

Entering Montagu’s pretty, welcoming main street — lined with old attractive buildings from another era — one is charmed into momentarily forgetting the heat. But the manicured pavements and other signs of affluence like upmarket farm stalls and restaurants inviting visitors to try local produce, freshly-baked goods and wine, swiftly falls away to reveal how most residents live.

Some 10 minutes past the ‘Welcome to Montagu’ sign, we are on a gently climbing road with significant speed bumps, which are ignored by the minibus taxi which roars past us as we dutifully obey the 60km per hour speed limit. This takes us past the Montagu dried fruit factory, up towards a smaller area of tightly clustered low-income housing called Mandela Square.

We enter a narrower tarred road with dusty pavements and uneven mismatched fencing and stop at a crossroads where we are surrounded by some humble brick homes and many more informal dwellings. Eyes adjusting to the glare, we note how relatively clean the area is. As we park, Denia Jansen, who leads a gender-based violence healing circle in the area says we must make sure to leave no valuables in sight in the car because:

“It’s not like the city, but you can’t be too careful.”

The street smells of berg winds and tar as we turn off it onto a narrow path where the fence has been interrupted to navigate the many small homes to reach our goal. Despite there being no discernible path but for spaces between dwellings, Jansen leads on as surely as if she were on a bricked-out path. Besides the smell of hot, dry air, the sound of the odd dog, and two or three people walking along the tarred road, there are no other signs of life.

Mandela Square, Montagu

Mandela Square, Montagu, shows the starker side of life in the small town. (Photo: An Wentzel)

Jansen works with the NGO Trust for Community Outreach (Tcoe) which is part of the founding structures of the Rural Women’s Assembly (RWA) and has its head office in Mowbray, Cape Town. The Healing Circle is a pilot program started by the RWA to assist victims of gender-based violence in Montagu. Jansen was born in the region and knows it and the surrounding areas well. She also knows the people.

After some 450 metres of what feels like ‘wandering along’ behind Jansen, a young girl suddenly appears ahead of us — startling Jansen at first but then both smile broadly at each other and Jansen enfolds the girl, who looks about 12 years old, in a big hug.

“Ma is over here,” says the girl as they disengage, and we follow her around some charred wood and broken bricks.

“Come and meet our survivors,” is what Jansen said when she first told Daily Maverick that her organisation does more than just deal with issues of landlessness.

Following the 12-year-old, we walk some 50 more paces and turn into a neat yard enclosed by what looks like large chicken wire, with a three-room house and a partially enclosed porch with wooden chairs along one side.

Two of the survivors known to Jansen are sitting here. They look to be in their mid to late 30s and are chatting quietly.

Silvia Plaatjies says her boyfriend has been abusing her for years. She says the abuse is sometimes so bad that she has twice miscarried due to the beatings.

“The abuse is constant… but I also don’t know how to leave him. I do feel that I want to leave, but I also have kids. I am aware that I need help. My life is standing still.”

She has been with her boyfriend for three years. They had a baby who was born prematurely, delivered at home. When they reached Montagu hospital later in the morning, no one would tell her what was happening with the baby and it died not long after they reached the hospital.

“To be honest, I am an HIV-sufferer… and when I go to the clinic, there are certain people there (staff) who want to badmouth you and scold you. Then you don’t feel much like going back to the clinic to collect your medication. I know I’m wrong, but they make you feel so bad.”

Gender-based violence survivor Silvia Plaatjies

Gender-based violence survivor Silvia Plaatjies recalls some of the abuse she has experienced, in Mandela Square, Montagu, on 2 February, 2024. (Photo: An Wentzel)

Healthcare workers who treat patients living with HIV badly are unfortunately an occurrence at some clinics across the country — which is also why the Montagu survivors are fortunate to have an advocate like Community health worker Olga Thafeni.

But South Africans are long-suffering with stigma around Aids. 

Jansen says the RWA started the GBV Healing Circle after doing a survey in the region and concluding that: “There is no community safety net. Women have nowhere to go and no one to turn to.”

In a short video made by Street Talk some three years ago, Jansen is part of a group of women who tell hair-raising stories of rape and assault in an environment where police do nothing. A young woman from Zolani, not too far from Montagu, tells of her own experience growing up with her father constantly abusing her mother. One night her father almost killed her mother and “we managed to escape and we ran straight to the local police station in Zolani”, she says.

But the police station in Zolani had no service to offer:

“When we got there they told us, ‘its closed’. This was 7 o’ clock on a Sunday evening and they said it’s closed. My mother was bleeding, I was crying next to her…” (speaking directly to Daily Maverick, the young woman says the police officer who told them the station was closed also advised them to go to the Ashton station. There they were assisted and escorted home by saps officers who wanted to find the perpetrator.)

In the same video, an older woman says in many cases the police turn women away and say they are drunk.

Gender-based violence survivors

Gender-based violence survivors and members of the Montagu Healing Circle, Emmrencia Deelman and Silvia Plaatjies sit and talk with community Health worker Ma Olga, who is part of their support system and advocates for them at clinics and with police. (Photo: An Wentzel)

Speaking to Daily Maverick on the neat stoep in Mandela Square in Montagu, survivor Sylvia attests that this is still unchanged, and details what amounts to victim blaming on the part of the police, saying if the police smell alcohol on you when you try to report abuse, they say ‘come back when you’re sober’ or they chase you away saying you’re drunk and caused whatever trouble found you.

Community health worker ‘Ma Olga’ — Olga Thafeni — lives and works in the community and is part of the support structure that the women turn to. She  adds to Sylvia’s comments saying:

“When I call the police they will come — because I am a known health worker in the community. Sometimes the women run to me in the night and then I call the police.”

Ma Olga adds that it can also be dangerous for her as sometimes the boyfriends follow the women right up to her house and lurk outside.

Whilst it is commendable that the community health worker will go above and beyond to assist victims of gender-based violence, it is also a comment on the negativity of the police, who seem to pick who they respond to.

Montagu Police communications officer, Warrant Officer Suri Meyer, told Daily Maverick that Montagu police use “a multidisciplinary strategy, which includes figuring out how to help victims more effectively and encouraging people who have been harmed to come forward and offer advice on how to regain control when in an abusive relationship”.

gender-based violence

Poster in the window of the Rural Women’s Assembly office in Robertson, ‘Report Gender-Based Violence, SMS 43866’. (Photo: Supplied)

However, the survivors who spoke to Daily Maverick have clearly not felt encouraged by the police. The language used by SAPS, “to regain control when in an abusive relationship”, also shows that they do not understand the power dynamics of abusive relationships, as the abused person hardly ever has any power in the relationship, or has any to regain. It is undeniable that, as stated by the European Institute for Gender Equality: “most gender-based violence is inflicted on women and girls by men”. And, “many forms of violence against women are rooted in power inequalities between women and men…”

Meyer averred that Montagu, unlike the police station at Zolani, is never closed. Meyer also disagrees that they only respond to certain callers — like Ma Olga — when they are called to assist with domestic violence.

“If this is true names of members must be given to Captain Prins to hear the police official’s side too,” said Meyer.

Responding to SAPS’ comment Jansen sighs.

“It’s always like this, the survivors say ‘this’ and then the police say ‘that’… If the survivors say they don’t get the right assistance then when we get to the police they say ‘yes we do assist’… most survivors are saying they don’t get assistance from the police.”

Responding to Daily Maverick’s questions on why victims say they are mostly turned away at the police station when they want to report abuse, WO Meyer says:

“We are not allowed to take statements under Oath from people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.”

She does not say how they know the person is under the influence, which seems to support victims’ statements that if they smell of alcohol they are sent away. It also indicates that SAPS do no scientific check to see if the person is legally drunk and therefore not able to make a sworn statement according to the law which Meyer quotes.

Meyer says anyone who has a complaint should make it so that it can be addressed — which seems to overlook the power structures and the loaded dynamic that the women, some of them illiterate, would have to overcome to make a complaint against a structure meant to help them — but which has already dismissed them. Meyer further responded, “I can’t believe this is true,” when asked about women saying they were turned away from the police station late at night after having walked there in the dark.

Jansen says the abused women always get the short end of the stick.

“In the urban areas there are safe houses, in the rural areas there are no safe houses for women. And the organisations who work with the survivors are under-resourced… where is the money in the treasury to support gender-based violence, to open these police stations?”

Jansen says the women are working hard on getting out of abusive relationships despite the lack of assistance from the police and scarcity of NGO support structures. At the end of the day, she says, a safe house would be a part of the process and not the solution.

“We don’t want to be safe in a safe house, we want to be safe in our own houses.”

In the months of June and August 2023, South Africa recorded the following gender-based violence crimes against female victims.

  • 10,516 rapes;
  • 14, 401 assaults; and
  • 1, 514 attempted murders.

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