Police on trial for deserting abuse victims
Between rheumatoid arthritis and high blood pressure, 74-year-old Brenda Hedges was effectively paralysed from the waist down. She lay helplessly in her bed as her son-in-law poured petrol over her and took out a box of matches.
“He tried to light one match, but it didn’t take. The next two matches he lit at the same time,” says Lucille Schaper, Hedges’s daughter and the assailant’s sister-in-law.
By the time Schaper and a neighbour had put out the flames, Hedges was not moving. She died in hospital the next day.
The trial was not a complex one, and Roeland Bosman was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the murder. But that dealt with only one of the parties Schaper holds responsible for her mother’s death.
In October she hopes the court will also hold to account the other party — the state — as her family sues the minister of police and individual South African Police Service members for R750 000 in damages. But Schaper says that the money represents more than just hard cash.
“There’s no value you can put on my mother’s life; no money in the world can bring her back,” she says, sitting in the living room in the same house that Bosman invaded in November 2013. “I want justice. I want other people to know that they can get justice, too.”
Campaigners and activists hope the claim will become a landmark case because it will put on trial, in all but name, a system that they say is failing victims of abuse.
The morning before Bosman set Hedges on fire, Schaper and her sister Cecilia, Bosman’s wife, went to their local police station to plead for help, as they had several times before.
Schaper says Bosman had previously threatened to “burn” the women, and had attacked her with a knife when Cecilia moved to divorce him, citing previous physical abuse. The police had reason to believe Bosman was violent, and perhaps growing more violent — and had a statutory duty to protect the women he was threatening, she maintains.
“It is the purpose of this Act to afford the victims of domestic violence the maximum protection from domestic abuse that the law can provide,” reads the preamble to the 1998 Domestic Violence Act.
Widely hailed at its passing, the law sets out a mechanism for the victims of abuse to obtain protection orders that ban perpetrators from having any contact with them on an emergency or temporary basis, even before the supposed abuser is heard by a court. It also requires the police to arrest those who violate such an order.
In theory, it provides an arrangement to protect victims from harm. In reality, its implementation is patchy at best.
At the time of Hedges’s death, both sisters had standing protection orders against Bosman. They had applied for their mother’s protection order, but it had been denied because she couldn’t appear in court personally. Bosman had violated the orders, the police had been informed of those violations, and the sisters had even received pro bono legal help to demand his arrest. The police, as Schaper will tell the court again in October, did nothing. And that is not an isolated occurrence.
In December last year, a 24-year-old woman in Ekurhuleni was at home in her kitchen when her boyfriend entered, in violation of a protection order. While she struggled, he stripped off her clothes and poured boiling water in her vagina, over her legs and across her right hand.
Six months later, Lebohang Ranaka* is still in hospital, paralysed from the waist down. Her abuser spent one night in jail before being released, and is still a free man.
Her only hope now lies in small miracles: she has just regained slight sensation in her right hand. According to a counsellor at the hospital where she is admitted, the police had refused to serve her abuser with notice that a protection order had been issued against him.
A 2009 study by the Medical Research Council found that 55 women with valid protection orders had nonetheless died in South African domestic violence incidents that year. Since then, only four civil cases have been lodged alleging the police’s noncompliance with the domestic violence law, including the Schaper claim.
But though evidence suggests that police fail women in only a fraction of cases, precise numbers are impossible to pin down. Police stations must supply their own audits of noncompliance among their officers. This is backed up by oversight from the Civilian Secretariat for Police, which submits recommendations for improvement to the police minister, but not all police stations have sent reports to the unit in recent years.
What the secretariat does have is proof that 2009’s statistics were not exceptional. Parliament’s portfolio committee on police was told that from October 2014 to March 2015, the Western Cape recorded 77 instances of noncompliance by police. Mpumalanga had eight, the North West five and the Northern Cape one. Statistics were not available for the five remaining provinces.
“It’s becoming incredibly difficult to track,” says Lisa Vetten, a researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, who specialises in police monitoring and sexual violence policies.
“What makes it worse is that the [secretariat] is only there to report to the police minister. They can’t investigate or enforce, and there’s no longer an independent complaints mechanism for victims.
“There needs to be an independent panel to investigate, and management at the stations needs to take action. Currently, the only way we can see action being taken is through civil claims,” Vetten says.
Nearly three years later, the sisters are still haunted by Brenda Hedges’s violent death. Cecilia Bosman now has permanent epilepsy and Lucille Schaper still keeps a panga, a baseball bat and pepper spray in her house. She suffers throbbing headaches and sleepless nights, she says.
“The police took an oath to protect and serve, but it doesn’t mean anything. I have to protect myself,” she says.
* Not her real name