Over the last fortnight, the media in South Africa has been filled with particularly terrible crimes involving gender-based violence. In one response, an enormous crowd of women and men, dressed in black, protested outside the parliament buildings, demanding they be addressed by the President. Many were urging that a state of emergency be declared because of on-going femicide and rape. But the problem is endemic in the whole SADC region. And occasionally even the courts are moved to speak strongly on the issue. In one recent decision from Eswatini, for example, the judge hearing the matter spoke out more strongly than is usually the case against gender-based violence - and the need for a miracle to end it.
In his judgment on sentence, Eswatini high court judge Titus Mlangeni painted this picture: ‘In the morning hours of 18 June 2012, a 19-year-old woman of Luvatsi area, near St Phillips, was murdered in a most savage and gruesome manner. The accused was her boyfriend. Believing that she was in a love relationship with someone else, he took time to plan the murder. He sharpened a knife and, when the moment of evil came, he tied her legs together and ripped her throat wide open.’
The judge noted that the murdered teenager left two children behind, both of them fathered by the accused. Then, in a clear reference to the fact that this was another case of murder by an intimate partner, he wrote: ‘This is the story of how the life of Nontobeko Mkhatshwa tragically ended, at the hands of someone she loved.’
The accused, Mxolisi Wandile Mahlalela, handed in a statement including a confession made before a judicial officer. According to the judge, it was ‘melodramatic’ and ‘prolix’, running to 12 typed pages. Judge Mlangeni said ‘it would take a lot’ to believe some of the things said by the accused in his statement. Among these was a claim of a suicide pact between himself and the deceased, and that they had agreed he would 'slaughter her and then kill himself'.
One of the photographs handed in as exhibits was ‘not for the faint hearted’, he said. Showing the fatal injury, the picture made him think of ‘an animal that has been slaughtered the traditional way, waiting to be skinned and devoured’.
The evidence of one state witness, a friend of the accused, made clear that the murder had been planned, and that Mahlalela was determined to kill his partner ‘because she was in a love relationship with someone else that he knew.’
Though he initially appeared to be swayed by the argument of his friend not to go ahead with his plan, Mahlalela later showed him a stone that he used to wash his body, and said that the knife with which he intended to kill her, would be sharpened on this stone.
According to his ‘confession’, when he was at home with his girlfriend, he threatened to commit suicide but she ‘insisted I should kill her first’. She did not resist when he tied her legs together and ‘I then proceeded to cut her throat using the knife’.
After his conviction, the prosecution asked for a severe sentence, citing a number of reasons: ‘Death in love relationships is on the increase in this country and has become prevalent’; the woman was just 19 and there were now two children without a mother; the way in which she was killed ‘evokes absolute abhorrence and indignation’ and the killing was planned and executed ‘in the most savage and callous manner’.
Defence counsel, arguing for a lighter sentence, mentioned the two young children that Mahlalela would have to care for. This prompted the judge to say that the accused had brought about the situation himself, and could not now try to benefit from it. True, the accused was just 23, but it was difficult to fathom how such a young man could show ‘the cruelty of a predator’. Even agreeing to a statement of facts did not necessarily show he was contrite: there would have been little point in denying the overwhelming evidence against him.
The judge said he was very much alive to the ‘venerated triad’ to be considered in arriving at a proper sentence. But in this case, the personal circumstances of the offender were far outweighed by the offence.
He also said that ‘society is crying out for a miracle’ that would end the brutality of men against women.
Judge Mlangeni revisited the moments before Mkhatshwa was killed, and how she had been forced by ‘her loved one’ to write a long death note that ended soaked in her blood. As he sharpened the knife in her presence she would have seen 'death getting closer and closer’. When he tied her legs together, it would have been like the hangman coming through the door, except here ‘the hangman was her lover and the father of her two children.’
‘And then the animal struck,’ said the judge.
Both young and old needed to know ‘there is no place for such brutality, not on earth, not in heaven, not anywhere’, he said, sentencing the accused to 33 years in prison.
* This case, terrible as it is, meets its match for horror each week in judgments delivered by courts from around the region. Truly, the women – and we all hope, increasing numbers of men – of the SADC countries long for a ‘miracle’ that will end the brutality meted out by men on women, brutality very often inflicted on their intimate partners and the mothers of their children.