One woman is fighting to keep cases of gender-based violence on the court roll, or, failing that, at least to find another solution instead of ticking the “withdrawn” box.
“No person would beat you to a pulp and not do it again,” says Pumeza Futshane, the Johannesburg magistrate’s court’s chief prosecutor. “They normally do it again.”
Futshane opens her books to show how bad the problem of dropping cases of gender-based violence has become. There is no data on how many women are withdrawing cases, but she has created her own solutions to find some kind of justice.
She has been a lawyer for almost 20 years and her journey has not been easy, although her current job is proving the hardest battle yet.
She has heard it all before: “I must forgive him, I am a Christian”; “He is not a monster. He is the father of my child. I love him.”
On the round table in her ageing office at the court, files are neatly stacked. She takes out file after file to show the withdrawal certificates in dozens of cases where women have refused to press on with the prosecution of men they have claimed were abusive: women stating how their abusive partners have apologised, are sorry and should not be prosecuted for beating them to within an inch of their lives.
“You can never prosecute a case without a witness, even if the docket is perfect and you know the law will deal with the accused. Once a woman says she is in love with the abuser, you can’t change her mind.”
Futshane says, when she moved to the court, she “saw that this thing [the withdrawal of gender-based violence cases] was really bad so I got in touch with NGOs [nongovernmental organisations] to find solutions”.
With their help, she came up with her own system, which she says focuses on restorative justice when women want cases withdrawn.
“At that time, no one wanted to put their neck on the block as to how we must go about dealing with this situation when women say they don’t want to continue with the cases.”
Futshane says, with mediation, she is able to put on the cap of prosecutor, police officer and social worker and bring the victim and perpetrator together to find a solution.
“Here we need to ask the questions that a judge or magistrate would ask and instil in the perpetrator that what he did was wrong and it should never happen again.”
She pages through at least four notebooks — recording details of mediation processes — and files on her desk that contain cases that have been withdrawn in less than a year. In February alone, at least nine cases were withdrawn.
When she talks about some of the cases she has had to mediate, her upbeat attitude subsides. She sits back in her chair and, no longer paging through files, uses her hands to iron out wrinkles in her skirt.
She tells of a case in which a woman was beaten and her one-month-old baby almost strangled, yet the woman was begging her to withdraw the case.
“I can’t change her mind because she says she is in love with this man. But we will need to remove the child from such a situation.”
Futshane gives another example of a well-known person who had beaten up his partner, only for the woman to ask for a stay in prosecution. She had testified, but was still to be cross-examined.
“I told her that she had been a punching bag for a long time and there were files showing her long suffering of abuse. I asked her what was going to change if she did not continue with the case.” Though the case continued, the man was found not guilty because of insufficient evidence.
Futshane argues that mediation should be used in other courts because it has many positive effects, including a psychological one for the victim and perpetrator, and at least women feel that the justice system cares. Mediation reduces the prevalence of withdrawing cases because women are assisted by psychologists and not only by the courts.
“We need psychologists and social workers dedicated to the NPA [National Prosecuting Authority] to sit with us when we try to mediate these cases. When someone has abused you to that extent that he has made you believe that your life is dependent on his life, you feel like you are in a dark corner alone and it seems that no one can help you. With more resources, we could show women that we are here to help.”
Futshane is no longer sombre but angry, and tears well up in her eyes.
“A dog will always go back to where he found a bone. Women have become bones now and these men see them as easy targets. He will degrade your mentality, make you feel like you are not even a human being and take the most important thing in your life of being a woman. Then you turn around and drop the case, continuing to feed his ego. He will come back and kill you.”