Domestic violence a big problem in South African culture

Today I observed first-hand a South African issue that is acknowledged, but rarely talked about in my experience: domestic violence.

It’s Wednesday, late morning, the day our elders’ group, mostly older women – “gogos” or grandmothers – meets at Masiphile. Several of them had typically arrived early and were sitting in plastic chairs lining the porch, visiting. Just through the gate, next to the big cell phone tower that is a prominent landmark around here, a young man and young woman, 20-ish, were engaged in a heated argument. She was attempting to leave and he was impeding her effort to do so by moving in front of her every time she tried to walk away. Eventually, blocking her escape escalated to shoving and pushing.  We all watched and I wondered at what point should intervention be attempted? Immediately?  When he punched her in the face? When she was screaming for assistance?  Should I do it alone? Should I enlist the aid of some of the others?  Would they respond or are they so used to such displays that they would want to do nothing? Would there be any point in calling police at this point?  I favored getting several of us to approach as a group and surround the girl to protect her.

The scene unfolding before us was troublingly reminiscent of an incident I witnessed in my home town of Eugene, Oregon a couple of years ago along a public bike path next to a high school.  A woman was trying to escape from a man who would not let her leave. I watched from about 100 feet away and when, after a couple of minutes of bullying and blocking, he grabbed her and held on tight, I called 9-1-1 and reported “potentially imminent domestic violence” and described what was happening. The 911 call taker said an officer would be dispatched, but before he arrived the couple stopped quarrelling and walked away together. It’s possible of course he was holding a knife at her ribs that I couldn’t see and she wasn’t leaving voluntarily with him. I never knew.

Back here in rural KwaZulu-Natal, as I pondered what to do, I needn’t have. Suddenly, three of the gogos arose as one and started toward the couple, about 125 feet away. As they approached, the pushing and intimidation climbed another notch to hard shoving and the woman took a swing at the man’s face, just as the gogos arrived and quickly surrounded her. It took less than a minute for the grandmothers to intimidate the young man into standing aside and letting the young woman escape. They kept him engaged, trying to educate him about the error of his ways, for several minutes until the woman was out of sight.  Eventually, he took off running in the direction of the girl, no doubt planning to pick up where he left off before the gogos arrived. I doubt any one of us had any illusions that gogo intervention solved the problem. It only postponed it for a few minutes until it could resume in a less public place.

The gogos returned to Masiphile and I asked one, Philastina, what they had told the young man. She said they focused on talking to the woman, and told her to call police. But the man had taken her cell phone and refused to return it, a common action, I’ve learned, by abusive men who don’t want their women calling for help. I’ve seen it before. Philastina also told me they learned that the man was the father of the young woman’s baby, and that the girl’s family had told the young man “he could do whatever he wanted to her” to get her to behave in a manner acceptable to him.  I suspect this is disturbingly common as well.  Our gogo also said the young woman feared sexual assault as well as physical abuse.

Philastina lamented the “complete lack of respect” for his elders demonstrated by the young man. I pointed out that he respected, or feared, them long enough to let the girl go. “He strutted around like he was proud of the way he acted,” she said. She was disgusted. And surprised and disappointed when I told her that such things happen all the time in the United States, too. 

In a quick Internet search I couldn’t find specific stats that ranked South Africa against other countries in terms of violence against women, but I’ve heard several times from multiple sources in the year that I’ve been here that it is among the highest in the world. I did find, at a website called, that the SA Department of Justice says that one in four SA women is a survivor of domestic violence; and that a different organization – People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) – reports that one in six women who die in Gauteng Province, the most populous (Joburg area),  are killed by intimate partners.  And the Institute of Security, in a 1999 study, reported that 90% of women interviewed said they had been victims of physical violence, and 71% of sexual violence. 

Unarguably, it’s a big problem. I identified in my community needs assessment in my first 90 days here that domestic violence was an issue, and I have a goal of starting a domestic violence intervention group for men, something I have experience in via my career in public mental health. Haven’t given up completely, but I’d need a local Zulu man to partner with, both for credibility and for language translation. Haven’t yet found one, but I continue to look!    

Peace Corps Core Expectation #8:  “Exercise judgment and personal responsibility to protect your health, safety, and well-being and that of others”

About GaryC

I'm a retired mental health worker, a returned Peace Corps volunteer (South Africa, 2012-2013), and a writer. I live in Eugene, Oregon with the world's best dog, Carly. My card describes me also as "Jack-of-few-Trades, Master of Some", non-profit supporter, friend, grandpa and world traveler.
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