I first met Ellen Pakkies about 10 years ago. It was December 2008, and I was a cub reporter, unfortunate enough to have to cover the magistrates’ courts while the regular court reporter was on long leave. She gave me her court diary, setting out all the big criminal cases that would be appearing in the lower courts in the coming weeks, along with a few handy tips and a word of warning not to let the diary fall into ruin.
Ellen Pakkies’ case was jotted down among all the others – but immediately hers stood apart from the rest. It was extraordinary for several reasons.
Pakkies was known as a loving mother, a religious woman and an upstanding member of her community in Lavender Hill. But on a September morning in 2007, she killed her own son Abie by strangling him with a rope.
She didn’t attempt to escape blame; she handed herself in to the police and pleaded guilty.
The case defied common perceptions about the criminal justice system. Although convicted for Abie’s murder – a crime that can carry a punishment of life imprisonment – the prosecution acknowledged that substantial and compelling circumstances existed in Pakkies’ case to justify a lesser sentence. Pakkies walked away from the proceedings virtually a free woman. The Wynberg Regional Court sentenced her to a three-year prison term, suspended for three years, and 280 hours of community service.
The case stirred intense discussion and debate: was Pakkies simply a victim who was driven to her actions? And, was it appropriate for her not to serve time in jail despite the seriousness of the crime?
Her case encapsulated the impact that drug addiction, particularly dependency on tik, can have on Cape Flats families.
Though it has been years since I last saw Ellen, I am reminded of her when I drive past Lavender Hill or the graveyard where Abie is buried. And, most recently, with the release this month of a movie about her – Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story.
At the time of Abie’s death and the ensuing court proceedings, Ellen’s case was the kind that cried out for context; and to try and understand how she got to the point where she killed her own son, the daily newspaper I worked for let me go “off diary” for two to three weeks … (practically an eternity in the fast-paced world of news) to work on a series telling not only Ellen’s story but also Abie’s.
I spent hours chatting to Ellen, with photographer Cindy Waxa, at the dining-room table of her modest, immaculate home. The first few interviews were my favourite. Ellen spoke about the early part of her life and when Abie was young. She would fondly tell anecdotes about what Abie was like as a child, before the drugs, and how much he enjoyed music and dancing. She even pulled out old photographs, as any proud mother would do, and smiled at the funny poses he used to make.
I came to know a different person to the sombre face I was used to seeing in court. Ellen had a sense of humour and a caring, friendly demeanour; she enjoyed laughing and socialising with other people; she seemed strong in the face of adversity; and she still found joy and comfort in her positive memories of Abie.
When the interviews reached a point at which Ellen discussed Abie’s drug addiction and the day she killed him, I expected that she would become emotional, and maybe even refuse to relive it by going over the story in detail. But she didn’t. She appeared detached and matter-of-fact as she recalled the incident, as if she’d told it a million times. She looked down at the floor as she spoke, remembering the littlest of things – what the weather was like, how Abie liked his tea (she had made him a cup that morning) and how thick the rope was.
The most heart-breaking moments of the interviews were not these ones, when she recalled the ordeal; they were the ones in which she spoke of the abuse she had suffered not only at the hands of her son, but also family members and men from her past.
This fits with the view of clinical psychologist Martin Yodaiken, who compiled a report for the court during the legal proceedings. According to Yodaiken, the stress of a lifetime of abuse had slowly mounted until Ellen reached breaking point.
She had been in a state of “disassociation” when she murdered Abie. Her personality had had two distinct sides – the “loving mother” and the “abused woman”. While the loving mother had protected and cared for Abie throughout his drug addiction, the “abused woman” had acted out in killing him.
Ellen was not alone in her plight. Neighbours and community members revealed the pain of drug abuse and the everyday reality of growing up and living in Lavender Hill. One woman I spoke to, who lived with her husband and young children not far from Ellen, said she feared for her life and hoped to move out of Lavender Hill soon because she was a witness in a hijacking and murder case. A day or two after I interviewed her, she was shot and killed in her home.
I was unable to reach Ellen recently to catch up on how she feels about the newly released movie. In my view, however, her story remains as relevant today as it was over a decade ago, and should be told over and over again. Perhaps now, through a different medium, it will reach a wider, global audience.
For me, personally, I got to see a side to Ellen beyond the “loving mother”, the “abused woman” and the sombre face spread across much of the media.
And though I later went on to cover the courts full time, her story, too, remains one of the most poignant I reported on. DM
Leila was a journalist at the Cape Argus and Weekend Argus, and a High Court reporter at the Cape Times. She now works in law publishing and is pursuing an LLB degree