Judge slams domestic violence, femicide and urges tougher sentences

The first judgment chosen as part of Jifa’s Women’s Month focus is from Eswatini. It deals with the murder of a young woman who had a young child, now an orphan. What makes this judgment on sentence different from many others we read each week, is the comments by the presiding judge, Titus Mlangeni. Many judges handle cases of violence against women as though they were traffic offences, with no comment on the impact of such crimes on the whole of society. Judge Mlangeni, however, speaks about the prevalence of domestic violence and the need for men to learn that they should walk away from disappointments in love rather than physically acting out their anger. He also says the time has come to increase sentences in such cases because domestic violence has become such a problem. If you were a member of the girl’s family, or a woman or girl living in Eswatini, and you heard this judgment, you would feel the judge understood the constant pain and the fear you suffered. If you were a man, you would also feel the impact of his words.

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The hammer used by Thami Ntshangase to murder his 19-year-old girlfriend, Phetsile Sambo, weighed five kilograms. He mustered all his force and hit her with it over the head many times. He had thought it all out, arranging with a friend to call her from her home. The friend was to say that someone wanted to speak to her, but would give that person a false name.

It was, said Judge Titus Mlangeni, a ‘decoy’, and evidence that this murder had been carefully planned.

The two had been in a ‘cosy’ relationship, said the judge, and Ntshangase had been kind to her and her family, even helping raise the child that Sambo had from an earlier relationship. There was ‘no denying’ that Ntshangase ‘demonstrated love, care and generosity’ to the girl and her family. But it seems they began to drift apart and Ntshangase, who could not tolerate such a state of affairs, then set his fatal plan in motion.

Though he had done ‘significant favours’ to Sambo and her family, none of this gave him ‘a right of ownership over (her) life’, or allowed him ‘to take her life when he was unhappy with her’, said the judge. Men had to learn to walk away when they were disappointed by their partners.

There were mitigating factors to consider: he had previously been good to his girlfriend, he had no previous convictions, he surrendered himself to the police and co-operated fully with them. He was just 27 and he agreed to a ‘statement of facts’. Though a ‘sign of contrition’ this, together with all the other mitigating factors, ‘is overshadowed by the brutality in which a young girl lost her life’, and a child lost her mother. In addition, the murder was well-planned and executed with ‘precise callousness.’

He quoted from other judges who had imposed stiff sentences after speaking strongly against domestic violence. He even quoted from one of his own earlier decisions: ‘… decisive measures must be taken to give more protection to the defenceless women who are increasingly subjected to this cowardly and egocentric behaviour by men. Once other law enforcement agencies have done their part, the courts are the only beacon of hope …. The time has come for sentences to truly reflect society’s abhorrence of violence, especially violence that emanates from love relationships.’

Courts in Eswatini ‘urgently need to break away from tradition and set new precedents in sentencing; precedents that are “loud and clear in deterrence”. There is no value in paying lip service to deterrence while meting out meek sentences.’

Judge Mlangeni then quoted two headlines from a newspaper that appeared on the day he wrote judgment on sentence, both of them reporting horrific killings of women by their husbands. He said the rate of violent crime against women placed the whole country in a bad light, and that many women ‘wrote their own epitaph’ through the simple act of going alone outside to the family toilet.

For some time, sentence for murder in Eswatini had ranged between 12 and 25 years, he said. This was possibly part of the reason that violent crime showed no signs of decreasing. ‘It is my view that in the face of rampant, constantly escalating crime, the range of sentences should not be stagnant. If the law is a living institution, it must respond to emerging challenges’ in a way that ensures society’s confidence.

Clearly, the court should not approach sentencing with anger or vengeance. But nor should it show ‘misplaced pity or sympathy’.  

His final decision was that a sentence of 27 years, without the option of a fine, would be appropriate, effective from the date in May when Ntshangase was convicted. The calculation of the exact term should, however, also take into account the period spent in prison after his arrest, and the period he was released on bail.