Police officer Natasha Landers (right) with Regina Marcus, who filed a criminal complaint against her partner for violence.

Police officer Natasha Landers (right) with Regina Marcus, who filed a criminal complaint against her partner for violence.

Foto:

Lee-Ann Olwage / DER SPIEGEL

Femicide in South Africa Cape Town Women Are Waging War on Gender-Based Violence

In few other places in the world are as many women killed as in South Africa. The country's president has even described it as "war." And it is one that a handful of courageous women are intent on winning.
By Heiner Hoffmann und Lee-Ann Olwage (Photos) in Cape Town
Global Societies

For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Jehaan Is no Longer

The sun is shining, the buildings are colorful, the lawn is green. Jehaan laughs loudly as she talks to her aunt Tasneem, whom she calls "mother" because Tasneem is raising her. Hearts are emblazoned on the facades, it looks a bit like it could be straight out of an Astrid Lindgren children's story, a peaceful, idyllic place. Only, it's not the reality. Jehaan drew the picture shortly before her death. It was a depiction of how she wanted life to be in Hanover Park, one of Cape Town's most violent neighborhoods. A few days later, she was dead, likely beaten to death with a concrete block. "Unnatural cause of death," her death certificate states. Jehaan was 17.

Tasneem Losper holds a drawing made by her niece Jehaan up to the camera.

Tasneem Losper holds a drawing made by her niece Jehaan up to the camera.

Foto: Lee-Ann Olwage / DER SPIEGEL

The drawing of the utopia she wanted now lies folded on a dark brown cabinet, which has become a sort of shrine. The brief notes from Jehaan to her "Ma," written mostly after an argument between the two, are also here. "I'm sorry," is scrawled on one, or: "Please forgive me. I love you." Tasneem Losper holds the letters in her hands, trembling, she is no longer able to hold back the tears. "We lost her," she sobs.

Between April and June alone, 116 women were murdered in the Western Cape Province in South Africa, more than one per day, in addition to 159 attempted femicides. After years of slightly declining homicide rates, the numbers are now ticking up again. The president of South Africa has said the country finds itself in the midst of a "war" against women and children. There have been emergency meetings, high-level talks and action plans. But Jehaan Petersen lived in this war, and for her, all that came too late.

Tasneed Losper, her foster mother, remembers well the Wednesday afternoon when Jehaan came home. She was different than usual. "For the first time, she really opened up to me," the aunt says. The problem was Georgie, a gangster from the area who had forcibly tried to pull down her pants. She told her aunt that Georgie had been after her for some time, and that he wouldn't take no for an answer. After Jehaan told her everything, she left the house and never returned.

Jehaan's bed in her aunt's home

Jehaan's bed in her aunt's home

Foto: Lee-Ann Olwage / DER SPIEGEL

Losper is sitting in a broad easychair, her mobile phone in her hand, as if she is still waiting for news on her niece's whereabouts. Then, gesticulating wildly, she recounts the events three days after Jehaan's disappearance. She says her phone rang and the caller informed her they had found a body. Immediately, she ran out of the house - but then, Losper suddenly stops talking.

It takes a few seconds before she has the strength the speak the unspeakable. "My beloved no longer had a face." A concrete block was lying next to the body, but she doesn't know whether it was the murder weapon. The police, she says, haven't told her anything since then. Meanwhile, Georgie is behind bars as a suspect – a witness accused him of the crime and his request for bail has been denied. Now, Losper is waiting for the main proceedings. At the very least, she wants to have certainty.

Avril: The Loud Voice of Hanover Park

If it's true that South Africa is at war, then it is also necessary to talk about the women who are determined to win this war. Women like Avril Andrews. She is sitting in an armchair next to Losper, explaining in a calm voice how the bereaved can get pastoral help. She describes how things work in court. She says she will follow up with the police on the status of the investigation. Andrews fills a void that has been left wide open by the government. She cares for and advises the people affected, standing up for their rights and pressing the authorities.

Avril Andrews in front of an apartment building in Hanover Park

Avril Andrews in front of an apartment building in Hanover Park

Foto: Lee-Ann Olwage / DER SPIEGEL

Andrews looks tired. She's had a number of long days and her phone keeps ringing. In South Africa, "16 Days of Activism" is currently underway, a high-profile campaign against gender-based violence. It is early in the morning before the visit to Tasneem Losper and the 60-year-old is standing on the street in front of her home. She has gathered more than a dozen like-minded people, who hold up signs and chant slogans. Things like: "We want peace," or "Stop the violence." Passing cars honk their horns, men at the wheel raise their fists in solidarity. "I hope it doesn't just stop at gestures," Andrews says with a sigh.

A protest against violence in Hanover Park

A protest against violence in Hanover Park

Foto: Lee-Ann Olwage / DER SPIEGEL

She has personally experienced the violence in the neighborhood: Her son was shot to death, the victim of a confrontation between enemy gangs. Photos of him hang everywhere in her home, which she has converted into a kind of meeting center. After her son's death, she also established the Alcardo Andrews Foundation, providing assistance to victims of violence and promoting peace in the neighborhood. Andrews quickly realized that the men who have been shot to death are only the tip of the iceberg. Much of the violence takes place in secret, behind closed doors, within families. The perpetrators are almost always men. The victims mostly women. "But many victims are still afraid to report perpetrators, often out of shame. I want to change that," says Andrews. She accompanies women to the police and places them in safe shelters when needed.

If South Africa's men are waging war against women and children, then Cape Flats is the main front in that battle. White Cape Town, with its skyscrapers and sophisticated apartment buildings, is far away from here, where the steep hills around Table Mountain give way to flat plains. Much of the Flats look like something out of an American gangster movie: run-down apartment blocks with courtyards filled with trash, groups of men leaning against fences on dilapidated basketball courts. The majority of the inhabitants are black or members of the mixed-race Cape Coloured community – they were displaced here during the apartheid regime.

Major gangs with names like the "Americans," "Hard Livings," "Fancy Boys" and "Clever Kids" are in charge in the streets, ambulances only operate with police escorts, and the government has even sent in the military in the past to keep order. But none of it has helped much.

Children at Cape Flats

Children at Cape Flats

Foto: Lee-Ann Olwage / DER SPIEGEL
Drug abuse and gang crime are big problems in the area

Drug abuse and gang crime are big problems in the area

Foto: Lee-Ann Olwage / DER SPIEGEL

Sergeant Landers: A Social Worker with a Gun

On the map in the Manenberg police station, many circles are drawn – some large, some small. They show the gangs' areas of power. "We're a gang district," Sergeant Natasha Landers says. She's wearing a uniform, gun in her holster and hair tied back in a ponytail. Landers, 35, grew up here in the neighborhood and she knows the gangs and their leaders. Her father was also a police officer in Manenberg, a Cape Flats neighborhood. "Being a police officer isn't for women, certainly not here," he told his daughter repeatedly.

But Landers was never one to let men tell her what to do, so she became a police officer after all. She goes out on patrol every day as the sole female officer in the precinct. "Of course, I have to listen to a lot of shit from guys, but I can be pretty tough too," the officer says, laughing. She has only had to use her gun once in her 10 years of service – during a shootout with gang members. Several of her fellow officers were killed in the skirmish.

Sergeant Landers can be reached at any time.

Sergeant Landers can be reached at any time.

Foto: Lee-Ann Olwage / DER SPIEGEL

Landers is the officer responsible for gender-based violence. There is no special unit here in Manenberg, no task force, just her. She is accompanied by a volunteer auxiliary policewoman from the neighborhood. That's all the capacity there is in this war, which the president said he would make his top priority. In that sense, Sergeant Landers is three things in one: social worker, police officer and counselor. And yet she still says, with conviction: "My work has been successful." Whereas violence against women has increased significantly in the rest of the country, it has decreased in Manenberg. Yet even here, officers are still constantly confronted with death.

Landers parks her patrol car at the end of a dead-end street. An open field begins here, plastic garbage is lying around everywhere. She then walks a few steps and kicks the trash aside with her boots before pointing to the ground. "This is where I found a woman's body yesterday." She says the body is still undergoing an autopsy, but it looks like it was probably a drug overdose. This is also part of everyday life here. "Tik," more commonly known as crystal meth and commonly inhaled here with a straw from a broken lightbulb, is available on every corner.

A woman's body was found here the day before.

A woman's body was found here the day before.

Foto: Lee-Ann Olwage / DER SPIEGEL
Sergeant Landers speaks to witnesses and the conversation turns to the neighborhood's problems.

Sergeant Landers speaks to witnesses and the conversation turns to the neighborhood's problems.

Foto: Lee-Ann Olwage / DER SPIEGEL

Sergeant Landers approaches a family that is walking by the crime scene and wants to know what they saw. Not much, they answer, before going on a rant about the safety situation in the neighborhood and about the lack of recreational opportunities for the youth. The policewoman listens patiently, knowing full well that the residents are right. She also lives here, after all. "Violence is pervasive, not just on the streets, but in homes," Landers says. "Daughters see how their mothers get beat up. Later, when their own husbands do the same, they think it's normal."

Then she gets back in the patrol car, always holding her mobile phone in her right hand, with new messages arriving constantly. She answers with voice messages as she drives. Almost everyone in Manenberg has her number – just about every woman, at least. At stoplights, drivers greet her from other cars, many exchange a quick joke, to which Landers usually responds to with a snappy comeback before hitting the gas. On weekends, many women also come to her home, where she offers them grilled steaks and a few hours away from their violent husbands.

One of her regular visitors is Regina Marcus. When the patrol car drives up, the 44-year-old is already running out of the house to greet the policewoman with a warm hug. Then they go into the house together – Marcus sits down on her sofa in the sparsely furnished living room, junk lying around everywhere. Marcus says that a few days ago, gang members broke in and beat her up. Once again, she says, it was about her ex-boyfriend, a known gangster in Manenberg. She reported him for assault and he is in custody. The gang wants her to drop the charges. Landers leans against the cabinet. She knows the story. She drives by Marcus' house regularly to check up on her.

Sergeant Landers and her colleague with Regina Marcus (center)

Sergeant Landers and her colleague with Regina Marcus (center)

Foto: Lee-Ann Olwage / DER SPIEGEL
Regina Marcus was the repeat victim of domestic violence.

Regina Marcus was the repeat victim of domestic violence.

Foto: Lee-Ann Olwage / DER SPIEGEL

Lying in front of Regina Marcus is a sheet of paper from a police file. Several crosses and circles are drawn on the outlines of a body. Broken ribs. A swollen knee. Scrapes and bruises on the buttocks and chest. "Patient with injuries, likely due to assault," the document reads. "He would have killed me eventually. I'm only alive because of Sergeant Landers," Marcus says. She says the policewoman made sure he ended up in court and the violence disappeared from her home.

But Landers also knows that every criminal complaint can also lead to even deeper misery. Because in South Africa, you can't get a job if you have a criminal record, and many wind up just sitting at home, drinking and taking drugs, a vicious circle. "I try to solve most cases without a police file," Landers says. It's only in drastic cases like the one involving Regina Marcus that she relies on the severity of the law. In other cases, the policewoman has been trying a different approach for several months: She invites both partners to the police station, a meeting that for many couples is the first time they really speak to each other. And if the men continue to use violence after the talks, they are arrested. "It's working," the officer says. "Reported cases have gone down since we started. I'm a social worker with a gun."

Bonnie Curie-Gamwo: The Prosecutor with a Teddy Bear

Twelve kilometers from Manenberg, a woman in a beige pantsuit and carrying a briefcase hurries into a two-story building next to Victoria Hospital. Her flight leaves in the evening. Bonnie Currie-Gamwo is a senior prosecutor in South Africa, and she is responsible for femicide and gender-based violence. She has taken the most prominent cases to court, is feared by lawyers and respected by judges. But she no longer dons a robe – she has a different mission now. Currie-Gamwo is responsible for making South Africa's justice system fit for this war on women, creating a system that protects survivors and punishes perpetrators effectively. Here at Victoria Hospital, she is showing off the centerpiece of her plan: the Thuthuzela Care Centers.

Prosecutor Bonnie Currie-Gamwo is responsible for helping the justice system battle gender-based violence.

Prosecutor Bonnie Currie-Gamwo is responsible for helping the justice system battle gender-based violence.

Foto: Lee-Ann Olwage / DER SPIEGEL
The Thuthuzela Care Center in Wynberg

The Thuthuzela Care Center in Wynberg

Foto: Lee-Ann Olwage / DER SPIEGEL

Thuthuzela is a word from the Xhosa language that translates as comfort. It is a place where victims of gender-based violence come, mostly women and children. The walls are painted with green plants, there are stuffed animals on the sofas – it's the opposite of the harsh world in Cape Flats. "We want them to feel as comfortable as possible here," the prosecutor says. But all it takes is a peek inside the cupboards to reveal that the Thuthuzela centers are really about terrible crimes. "Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kits" can be found inside, shrink-wrapped kits for collecting evidence after rape.

In the past, survivors of sexualized violence had to go through an exhausting odyssey that would take them from the doctor to the psychotherapist to the police and then to the public prosecutor's office. But the Thuthuzela Care Centers bring all these things together in a single place. Victims receive a medical exam, including evidence collection, are then allowed to shower and are introduced to a trauma therapist. Afterward, they can directly file a complaint. And because the vast majority of victims come from low-income households, they are also provided with food.

School children demonstrate against gender-based violence.

School children demonstrate against gender-based violence.

Foto: Lee-Ann Olwage / DER SPIEGEL

Prosecutor Currie-Gamwo has great faith in the concept and it has produced results. Evidence gathering has improved significantly, the conviction rate of offenders has risen from 60 to 76 percent since the first centers opened, and long prison sentences are becoming increasingly common. "Violence is so pervasive in our country, our children are growing up either as victims or perpetrators," the prosecutor says. It's a cycle she wants to break.

The prosecutor is all too familiar with the reality of Cape Flats. She grew up in Hanover Park, the neighborhood where 17-year-old Jehaan was allegedly murdered. "I was very lucky, my parents always emphasized getting an education. I am passing that on to my daughter now as well: Be independent, know how to fight back," she says. Then the feared prosecutor grabs one of the teddy bears on the sofas and clamps it tightly under her arm. "We are going to win this war."

This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe on injustices, societal challenges and sustainable development in a globalized world. A selection of the features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appear in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of DER SPIEGEL International. The project is initially scheduled to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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