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Help! I am in an abusive relationship… with the ANC

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Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Like many people in an abusive relationship, I have stuck it out for years and years in the hope that something will change. For how long can this continue?

Given the fact that we are celebrating Women’s Month, I thought it important to expose my abusive partner, the ANC. You see I fell in love with him at the tender age of 13 years old, he in many ways was my first love. It was love at first sight and we married soon thereafter. And I do take my vows very seriously, since I grew up without a father and know what it means to experience a single-headed household. I vowed never to repeat that experience.

It has been many years now, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part. But for how long must I take the abuse? It’s never been physical, but emotional. Emotional abuse destroys your self-esteem, making it feel impossible to start afresh.

When many people hear that someone is in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, their first question is, “why don’t they leave?” If you’ve never been through an abusive relationship, this sort of response might seem logical. Just throw the deuces up and move on with your life – right? But here’s the thing – when it comes to relationship abuse, it’s never as easy as “just leaving”. Here’s why:

Leaving an abusive relationship is hard for many reasons. Here are 11 of the many reasons that someone in an unhealthy or toxic situation might stay with their partner. According to the specialists on “Myths and Facts about Domestic Violence – Domestic Violence Intervention Programme”, these are:

  1. Society normalises unhealthy behaviour so people may not understand that their relationship is abusive. When you think that unhealthy or abusive behaviours are normal, it’s hard to identify your relationship as abusive and therefore there’s no reason to seek help.
  2. As I said, emotional abuse destroys your self-esteem, making it feel impossible to start fresh. Often, people in emotionally abusive relationships may not understand that they are being abused because there’s no violence involved. Also, many will dismiss or downplay emotional abuse because they don’t think it’s as bad as physical abuse. It’s hard for those in abusive relationships to leave their partners after they’ve continuously been made to feel worthless and like there’s no better option for themselves. Even if some want to brand us super fans.
  3. The cycle of abuse: after every abusive incident comes a make-up honeymoon phase. Often when an abusive situation happens, it is followed by the abuser doing something nice or apologising and promising that they will never do it again. This makes their partner minimise the original abusive behaviour. Much like the promises currently surrounding the fight against corruption.
  4. It’s dangerous to leave. Like, VERY dangerous. Many times, leaving an abusive relationship is not only emotionally difficult, but can also be life-threatening. In fact, the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is post-breakup. Another way to view this, is that your livelihood is threatened and you could lose your job and the ability to provide for your family.
  5. It’s not just hard to break up safely, it’s also hard to escape the cycle of control. People in abusive relationships often attempt to break up with their partner several times before the breakup sticks. On average, a person in an abusive relationship will attempt to leave seven times before finally leaving for good. People in abusive relationships often attempt to break up with their partner several times before the breakup sticks. Some tried it before – UDM, Cope, EFF – with many unfortunately returning to the abusive relationship.
  6. Society perpetuates a ride-or-die mindset. Those in unhealthy or abusive relationships might stay with their partner or get back together after a breakup because they feel pressure to not give up, forgive and forget or “ride it out”. Pop culture glamourises being a “ride-or-die” for your friends and partner, making people out to be in the wrong for leaving their partner. And while being loyal is a great thing, a good friend or partner would never endanger or hurt you.
  7. They feel personally responsible for their partner or their behaviour. After a conflict, an abuser will turn the situation around and make their partner feel guilty or as though they are somehow at fault. This type of behaviour is known as gaslighting. We’ve had our fair share of this too.
  8. They believe that if they stick it out, things might change. A lot of people in abusive relationships stay in them because they love their partner and think that things will change. They might also believe their partner’s behaviour is due to tough times or feel as though they can change their partner if they are a better partner themselves.
  9. There is social pressure to be in a perfect relationship. There is incredible pressure to be in a perfect relationship, and some cultures and social media only accentuate this pressure.
  10. Fear of how others will react. People in abusive relationships often feel embarrassed to admit that their partner is abusive for fear of being judged, blamed, marginalised, pitied or looked down on. For example, in some LGBTQIA relationships, someone may stay with their partner for fear of being outed.
  11. They share a life together. Marriage, children, and shared finances are often huge reasons that people in abusive relationships stay in them. This dependency is heightened in relationships where one partner is differently abled. But there are also similar factors that affect young people’s decisions to stay in relationships, including shared friend groups and living situations. After all, we are all comrades together, we fought the Struggle together, we are a family!

There are lots of elements that influence a person’s decision to stay in an abusive relationship. And while seeking help to get out of these relationships is the most important thing, blaming someone in an abusive relationship is never okay. There is a big difference between judgment and responsibility. While someone might have used bad judgment by staying in an unhealthy or dangerous situation, it does not mean that they are responsible, or asking, for the abuse perpetrated against them.

If you’re trying to decide whether to stay or leave, you may be feeling confused, uncertain, frightened, and torn. Maybe you’re still hoping that your situation will change or you’re afraid of how your partner will react if he discovers that you’re trying to leave. One moment, you may desperately want to get away, and the next, you may want to hang on to the relationship. Maybe you even blame yourself for the abuse or feel weak and embarrassed because you’ve stuck around in spite of it. Don’t be trapped by confusion, guilt, or self-blame. The only thing that matters is your safety.

If you are being abused, remember:

  • You are not to blame for being battered or mistreated.
  • You are not the cause of your partner’s abusive behaviour.
  • You deserve to be treated with respect.
  • You deserve a safe and happy life.
  • Your children deserve a safe and happy life.
  • You are not alone. There are people waiting to help.

Signs that your abuser is NOT changing:

  • He minimises the abuse or denies how serious it really was.
  • He continues to blame others for his behaviour.
  • He claims that you’re the one who is abusive.
  • He pressures you to go to couples’ counselling.
  • He tells you that you owe him another chance. Vote for me again.
  • You have to push him to stay in treatment.
  • He says that he can’t change unless you stay with him and support him.
  • He tries to get sympathy from you, your children, or your family and friends.
  • He expects something from you in exchange for getting help.
  • He pressures you to make decisions about the relationship.

These are the facts with regard to my marriage, but if only my partner would acknowledge his abusive ways. Until such time that the ANC accepts that it is abusive towards us as members, it will not change. I live in hope, and I remain committed to making it work. I just hope it won’t be too late for others.

Till death us do part? Maybe not. DM

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