Defend Truth


The powerlessness of a mother to protect her children from starvation is a soul-destroying, quiet violence


Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is Professor and Research Chair in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University. She is the winner of the 2020 Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute.

To assume that Bongeka Buso ended the lives of her three children before hanging herself ‘because’ she is mentally unstable glosses over the complex interplay of personal and social-political forces that leave people in a state of neglect with little or no resources to allow them to reclaim their sense of human dignity.

It is easy to conclude that Bongeka Buso, the woman from Tholeni Village in Butterworth who ended the lives of her three children before taking her own is “a case of someone with mental health issues,” as the Eastern Cape MEC for Social Development, Bukiwe Fanta reportedly said at the funeral of Buso and her children last Sunday, 12 August.

This perception stems from studies of suicide behaviour and its prevalence that are dominated by clinical and psychiatric investigations. While the psychological lens in these studies has contributed important insights into suicidal behaviour, their tendency to apply only the clinical-psychiatric lens not only individualises these murder-suicide cases but also obscures the broader social dynamics that shape these tragic outcomes.

As the statements of the MEC at Buso’s funeral reveal — “she [Buso] needed someone to talk to but I still do not understand why she didn’t” — the failure is Buso’s for not seeking help rather than a social development system that failed to provide the conditions of human dignity to protect individuals and communities from the hopelessness brought about by the vagaries of a life of poverty.

This focus only on the psychiatric dynamics of suicide to the exclusion of influences from conditions created by the political neglect of marginalised communities perpetuates the normalisation of the dehumanising conditions under which people in these communities — many of them black — live in South Africa.

Individualising suicide steers the conversation away from the traumatic conditions of a social landscape that pushed Buso to the desperate lengths of her suicide death and taking her children with her. The utter powerlessness and inability of a mother to protect her children from starvation is a soul-destroying, quiet violence, a deep psychological wounding that may erupt in ways that defy comprehension.  

Buso’s tragic fate confronts us with the question of what life must have been for her and for her children and what she was forced to do to transcend these circumstances.

Young mothers and children born in post-1994 freedom are caught in these enduring economic circumstances of the vicious post-apartheid cycles of unemployment, poverty, and despair. Several reports in Maverick Citizen, and interviews about this incident with Gift of the Givers director in the Eastern Cape, Corene Conradie remind us of the alarming reality that Buso’s story is not the only one.

Dr Imtiaz Sooliman of the Gift of the Givers — who is a ray of sunlight through what sometimes feel like dark clouds hanging over our nation — sheds light on the grim conditions that produce the vicious cycles of despair in his Daily Maverick opinion piece, “Eastern Cape case of Buso family tragedy was ‘murder and death by hunger’.”

He notes that repeatedly, police investigations on these cases are closed with a finding of “no foul play suspected,” suggesting that the stories of death are a choiceless choice and a path taken to escape a life of extreme deprivation.

Legacy wounds

Buso’s story has a haunting echo with the tragic tales of enslaved women who, faced with the unrelenting brutality of slavery, “chose” to seek freedom elsewhere by taking their children with them to the afterlife.

A resonant story is that of Margaret Garner, the African American woman who in 1856 fled from slavery, and when she was caught by her slave master slit the throat of her little daughter and attempted to kill her other two children and herself rather than return to the trauma of slavery.

Like slavery, the psychological violence of poverty can obliterate a victim’s sense of identity as a human subject. Have you ever looked into the eyes of a woman who sits on a street corner begging for food, looking as if she is aware of being invisible to passersby and has given up trying to get your response and is no longer even extending her begging hands to get your attention, and when you return with a small bag of groceries to give to her it doesn’t seem to matter?

Imagine you are in this situation, and imagine the dilemmas and complex emotions that rage in your empty belly and in your internal world when you consider what options are available for you to transcend this situation.

Poverty and a last resort

To assume that Buso ended the lives of her three children before hanging herself “because” she is mentally unstable glosses over the complex interplay of personal and social-political forces that leave people in a state of neglect with little or no resources to allow them to reclaim their sense of human dignity.

Resorting to suicidal actions may be an act of agency in the face of powerlessness to change the unbearable ravages that confront a community where children can die from malnutrition, a situation reported in media outlets across South Africa, including this Maverick Citizen story about children starving to death in the Eastern Cape.

To portray Buso and other women in similar family tragedies simply as women driven by some form of madness shifts the spotlight away from a focus on the work that must be done to change their dire circumstances.

What makes Buso’s story so important is that seen as a political statement, it centres the experiences of women in communities that have remained at the margins of society long after the end of apartheid and forces us to see the injustice of the tragic and gloomy futures of children for whom post-apartheid freedom remains elusive. It calls us to bear witness to the continuing legacies of apartheid and the contemporary failures that exacerbate these enduring transgenerational repercussions.

Buso’s story and the conditions that plague families at risk of descending to a state of hopelessness expose the limits of the psychopathology lens that has dominated studies of suicidal behaviour for far too long. A small number of recent studies are beginning to challenge this reductionist clinical-psychiatric vision and are calling for a political and social justice approach to suicide.

As scholars suggest in Mark Button and Ian Marsh’s recent edited volume, New Perspectives on the Politics of Suicide and Suicide Prevention, stories like Buso’s are a reflection of the consequences of social and material disparities that strip individuals and communities of their human dignity.

What is noteworthy in this emerging scholarship is the observation that the persistent disregard of conditions that debase human dignity — the political failure to bring them to an end — deepens the experience and feeling that one’s life does not count.

The poignant echoes of the stories of Bongeka Buso and Margaret Garner, the woman who tried to escape from American slavery, although separated by time and space, their haunting similarities serve as stark reminders that we are witnesses to the consequences on women of a life scarred by oppression and historical injustices and how such a life can throw into chaos the meaning of motherhood.

Garner has been celebrated in American cultural life for her fortitude and her story has been mythologised by, among others, poets, film directors, painters, and most notably in Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-prize-winning Beloved. Literary and artistic responses to tragedy are powerful tools that create echoes of these stories and help us to see how these tragedies of oppression intersect across space and time.

Look with better eyes

The message from Imtiaz Sooliman and his colleagues who have witnessed first-hand the agonising consequence of starvation calls us to engage differently and in practical ways with Buso’s story. It is one of the most urgent calls to arms this Women’s Month, an impassioned plea inviting us to embrace the role of responsible citizens as a moral imperative.

The struggle for women’s rights is inextricably linked to the struggle against the violence of poverty. Women’s Month should not only be about celebration but also an occasion to recognise the overwhelming despair that confronts women in many communities in our country.

The invitation to donate to the Gift of the Givers account posted in Sooliman’s Daily Maverick opinion piece offers us an opportunity to participate in transformative civic engagement and to be counted among agents for an extraordinary intervention. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • The people at the funeral should have beat up Bukiwe Fanta for saying this. That is just heartless.

  • Ben Harper says:

    I’m sorry but this is a load of nonsense! Trying to make excuses for a persons own actions or inactions. Why does no-one ever address the elephant in the room – if you’re in abject poverty why on earth would you have a child, let alone three??? And the other elephant in the room, why is no one talking about the fact that 70% of Black children fatherless? It would be poignant to ask in this particular case, did all of the 3 children have the same father?

    Talking about slavery to poverty is flossing over the real causes – lack of accountability and consequence for one’s own actions and behaviour. The sad reality is this is a never ending cycle people who cannot afford to sustain even themselves still procreate and have more children that will ONLY drag them deeper into the hole.

    Until this is addressed, nothing will change other than it getting worse

    • Sarah ONeill says:

      It’s very sad that you had to comment in such a way, Ben. Have you considered that plenty of women have no choice about contraception? Do you know that it is not a simple matter for a person without an income to get contraception? There are just too many challenges to mention here. And there are still very few women who choose to raise children alone. You may also be missing the point and that is that women, and particularly many Black women, remain marginalised and unable to make decisions about their own lives.

      • Ben Harper says:

        Sarah – the best and most powerful contraception is completely free – the word NO. No challenge in that! Way too many people making excuses for others poor choices. Did you know that 70% of black children in SA grow up without a father? What’s your solution, more handouts and grants? Sick and tired of people making excuses for people who make dumb decisions and beg for handouts afterwards. The poverty cycle is not only going to perpetuate it’s going to get far far worse. As far back as 2010 there were more people on public grants in SA that there were in formal employment – that’s 13 years ago, I can only imagine how much worse those numbers are now.

        It’s convenient to blame all sorts of outside influences and factors but woe betide someone says they must take responsibility for their own actions. No wonder the country has gone to the dogs, seems the majority of the populace can’t think for themselves or make informed decisions. Well here’s a simple one – If you can’t feed them, don’t breed them


      Thank you Sarah. These comments are reminiscent of some of the prejudice and beliefs that have dominated public discourse about teenage parenthood: the young women are sexually promiscuous; they become pregnant to access social grants; they are irresponsible, etc. Teenage pregnancy is a global health problem that is part of the violence of poverty. Consistently, studies have shown that teenagers who are more at risk are those from communities affected by social and economic disadvantage, a lack of basic services, limited access to health care and quality education, and very few or non-existent recreation or vocational opportunities. For many of these communities in South Africa the cycles of disadvantage date back to apartheid years of exclusion — a situation perpetuated by the total failure of some local governments — with many young people unable to realise their full potential because of being locked into a life of marginality and inequality. Stories such as this mother’s suicide death with her children invite the better angels of our nature to remind us of the power of human compassion and the possibility of acts of kindness.

  • Alan Paterson says:

    Rage has become such a trite and overused word in this Twitter/X era. Outrage right now when an official kisses a Spanish football player on the lips? Really? The term is only real when a starving mother and her children die (and their bodies discovered by a debt collector) while Fikile wants to send money to Cuba out of “solidarity” or yet another child drowns in a pit toilet,

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