It was exactly a year ago that the gruesome murder of Karabo Mokoena unleashed a moment of national rage against the scourge of violence on women. Much of the insurgence that dominated the national discourse was precipitated by the remarks of former Minister of Women, MP Susan Shabangu, who stated that “Karabo came across as very strong, but internally she was weak. She was weak and hence she became a victim of abuse”. Minister Shabangu further emphasised that “Karabo was in a relationship where she thought it would work for her but it led to unfortunately the death of her”.
A year later, and as the state resumes its case against Sandile Mantsoe, the alleged perpetrator and Karabo’s boyfriend at the time of her death, it is of importance that we revisit this debate.
Beyond media sensationalism and grandstanding public debates that support limited interpretations of the notion of “weakness”, there is a deeper, more nuanced inference yet to be explored: that which locates the process of the “weakening” of women, especially black women, within a contextual landscape.
Locating the “weakening” of women in context primarily requires that we shift the public gaze from the accused, and chose rather to probe with renewed focus the agent/s that repeatedly propelled Karabo towards the multiple episodes of intemperate violence impounded upon her body, progressively courting her towards her last breath.
Karabo’s own mother warned her that Sandile would kill her. Weeks before she stared at Karabo’s unidentifiable remains, she warned Karabo: “You cannot go on like this, this is not love, it is a toxic relationship, I do not even know what to call this.”
In court this week her close friends, Stephanie Leong and Puleng Mthethwa recalled this toxicity and how Karabo spent her last birthday in hospital, nursing wounds allegedly inflicted by her boyfriend. Yet Karabo returned to him.
What name can we administer towards the very thing that propelled her back to him? Her sister Nontle Mokoena told the court that Karabo would have done anything for Sandile.
There isn’t much to be said about Sandile. The most toxic of masculinities attracts the shallowest among them all. His brand represents a rapidly rising, dangerously insecure new urban masculinity: forex-trading, super-car revving nuisances covering fragile and anxious egos with tailored suits.
Sandile’s own was on full display at the South Gauteng High Court on Wednesday, 18 April. He bragged that “the place where I live in, not any mere person stays there… it’s in a posh neighbourhood where only an exclusive set of people live. Also, there was a lot of money lying around when the police searched my apartment”.
Yes, dear reader, he actually said this!
And although it is our collective constitutional responsibility to regard him as innocent until a court of law disagrees, evidence availed to the public leans in favour of his culpability. If indeed he is responsible, in him and his “dapper” court appearances are embodied some of the darkest personifications of the deadly characteristics of toxic masculinities. His is no different from that which inhabits Oscar Pistorius and hundreds other men who commit intimate-partner violence. These and many other cases of femicide retain our national reputation as a people that fetishises violence. According to the World Health Organisation, South African femicide rates were four times higher than the global average in 2015.
Evidence shows that the majority of intimate-partner murderers lead their partners towards their eventual death through gradual, escalating incidents of violence: from sulking, to shouting, to looking through phones, to sporadic episodes of unjustified – unbelievably funny to witness at times – jealousy, to occasional fights, to controlling behavior, to threats, then grabbing, to grabbing harder, then pushing, shoving, grabbing even harder, slapping, punching, kicking, punching. By the time of their eventual deaths, the victims are physically, emotionally and mentally expended. And as Minister Bathabile Dlamini observed at Karabo’s funeral, “once someone abuses you emotionally, they break you. You are finished”.
Yet despite our awareness of these nuances of violence on women, our collective psyche refuses to accept the idea of femicide as a gradual process of “weakening”. Whether this refusal may find basis on a political will to promote womanist discourse, or on fearful efforts to avoid confronting women’s agency in reproductions of violence – for most it is to populate the perception that women are not particularly weak for staying in violent relationships, nor do they remain in violent relationships because they are weak.
The very idea that women who return to abusive partners could be inhabited by a “form of weakness” unsettles our inner-feminists. It is always better to be strong.
This perhaps justifies why “strength” is commonly employed as a defining quality that precedes black women. When people talk about the strength of black women, they are speaking about both what is socially expected for a particular social group, and about a personal/group strategy against systems of domination. The latter serves largely as a self-preservation/defence tool. However, for many “strong black women”, rejecting the notion of weakness often requires the enforcement of silence.
As a public, we have not efficiently confronted the elements that fill this silence. We each want to highlight Karabo’s strength, yet which of us will dare direct the public gaze to the process of weakening that captured her to such extent that she would “do anything” for a man who repeatedly demonstrated his capacity and readiness to kill her?
Towards what end is our collective silence directed besides to normalise the use of violence as a legitimate means to enforce ideas, laws, rules or even deal with conflict in intimate relationship?
Perhaps we fear that assuming this debate will compel us to confront our individual and collective complicity each time we admire the strength of our own mothers and grandmothers, friends and relatives, because “I don’t know how she did it all, but she did”. How often have we measured their stature by how much they do not complain or share anguish with others? We dignify their silent suffering and in turn reinforce and reproduce tropes for the present and the future regarding strength as the hidden beauty of black women.
What about other forms of silence and weakening? Forms in women, regardless of race or class, who have witnessed or heard dark and deadly truths yet choose to remain silent, even when their loved ones or themselves could emotionally, mentally or physically die. These are women who knowingly live with perpetrators of violence. They are the members of the “it’s not my place” gang who will never report domestic crimes to authorities, yet will gossip to friends over coffee. Some are church women who hush young women who dare report indecent advances by male church leaders.
What intimidates women into such silence, even when agony camps at their knees?
From what reference can we draw a rationale for why Karabo, and the millions of women her tragic passing represents, repeatedly returned to the deadly arms responsible for her gradual murder? In other words, would there be value for the multitudes of femicide victims, dead or in waiting, if we interrogated and exposed the slickly progressive manner through which systematic patriarchal domination weakens its kill?
To sincerely answer these questions, we must consider first that addressing women’s weakened, “finished” states does not automatically negate any of their strengths. What it does is equip us with the tools and courage to recover from the impact of domination and to rediscover new forms of strength. DM
Philile Ntuli works at the Ministry in the Presidency responsible for Women
An earlier article on this issue was published on 26 June 2017