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Toxic notions of gender behind grisly killings

On Saturday September 5 in Yeoville, Johannesburg, Patrick Wisani allegedly killed his 24-year-old girlfriend, Nosipho Mandleleni, by beating her to death with a sjambok and a broomstick. Someone alerted the police after hearing her screams. It was a horrifying and excruciating way to die.

Wisani, chairperson of the Johannesburg inner-city branch of the ANC Youth League and former chairperson of the Community Police Forum (CPF) in Yeoville, handed himself in to the police on the following Monday.

The bail proceedings were marked by the magistrate “reading the riot act” to the police for their poor investigation of the case – the docket apparently lacked details about how and where the murder happened.

After appearing in court on four occasions, Wisani was granted bail on Monday September 21 for an amount of R3 000, on the condition that he stays out of Yeoville.

This case is worth following because it provides an illuminating case study of responses to gender-based violence in this country, throwing into relief what is happening, what should be happening, and why.

Wisani is a political leader and a former community leader; his behaviour sets an example for society. If we are to shift our norms and understanding of what is and is not acceptable, it is vital that our leaders are held accountable for their actions.

Wisani may also have a history of aggression against women, as reported by a City Press article published on September 13 2015. A concerned community member told City Press that Wisani was suspended from his role as the head of the Yeoville CPF in the wake of allegations that he had beaten a woman in public, so badly that she lapsed into a coma for three weeks.

Unfortunately, there is no further information on this attack because the police failed to open a case or investigate, even though a complaint was filed by community members. If these reports are accurate, it means that the police in Yeoville were made aware that Wisani was potentially violent and failed to take action.

The police bear a positive constitutional obligation to protect the most vulnerable members of our society, and in South Africa women are highly vulnerable. For example, in the same week as Wisani’s first bail hearing there was a hearing for another horrific femicide case in the Pietermaritzburg magistrate’s court. Thulile Phungile, a 23-year-old Lifeline employee, was strangled and forced to drink acid, allegedly by her ex-boyfriend Siphiwe Mbanjwa. Thulile managed to report the incident before dying what could only have been an agonising death in hospital. Both of these cases are shocking and disturbing, but they are also just two cases that reflect the reality that victims of femicide are most vulnerable to attacks from their intimate partners – boyfriends, husbands, ex-partners.

Between 2007 and 2013 there were more than one million reported contact crimes against women and more than half of the women killed in this country were murdered by their intimate partners.

This means that police must investigate allegations of violence and abuse against women, and perpetrators must be prosecuted. If the police were informed about the previous assault by Patrick Wisani, they had a duty both to investigate at the time and to bring this information to the attention of the prosecutor before the bail hearing. Whether or not Wisani has a history of violence was an important consideration in the magistrate’s decision to grant or deny bail.

One positive outcome of the Wisani case was the reaction by the youth league and the ANC Women’s League. Youth league spokesperson Mbali Hlophe condemned the killing, saying the organisation does “not tolerate any form of abuse whether it was committed and perpetuated by a member or not”. Hlophe also recognised that it is the “patriarchal, chauvinist mentality” of some men that is a cause of such violence, as it contributes to them treating women as “objects to use and abuse as they please.”

Toxic conceptions of gender are clearly at the heart of Nosipho and Thulile’s misogynistic killings. Instead of lamenting the deaths of more women at the hands of their partners, we need to start implementing strategies that prevent the violence from occurring in the first place. There is an urgent need for a holistic national strategic plan to guide a multisectoral response to gender-based violence, to ensure that more gender-equitable norms are fostered throughout society, and that all perpetrators are held accountable for gender-based violence, and that survivors of violence receive sensitive and supportive services.

This is something that a broad coalition of civil society organisations has been consistently demanding since 2013 and it remains as crucial as ever. In the words of ANC Women’s League spokesperson Jacqui Mofokeng, it is necessary to “nip patriarchal tendencies in the bud”.

Our leaders particularly have an important role to play in using their influence to reshape gender norms. For this reason, it is important that our leaders are also held accountable if they perpetrate gender-based violence. Without demonstrating that there is a sufficient likelihood that cases of violence against women will be investigated and perpetrators punished, even convictions in high-profile killings will fail to serve as an adequate deterrent for intimate femicide.

For now, Patrick Wisani is out on bail. Public scrutiny will hopefully help to keep the pressure on the criminal justice system to deal with Nosipho’s killing to a higher quality than has been the case to date.

We will be watching this case closely. We urge the media and civil society to do the same.

Ariane Nevin is a policy development and advocacy fellow at Sonke Gender Justice

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