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A correct police response to domestic violence could save lives

Every eight hours in South Africa, a woman is murdered by her intimate partner. Three a day. At least.

The Preamble of the Domestic Violence Act (DVA) states that victims of domestic violence are among the most vulnerable members of society. The DVA describes a variety of behaviours that can be classified as domestic violence in a range of domestic relationships.

We know this. We have known that women are being murdered by their boyfriends, husbands, ex-boyfriends, etc at alarming rates since the Medical Research Council first told us about it in 2004 (nearly 10 years ago!) (back then it was every six hours). Yet, when they looked at the figures again in 2012, they found that although murder rates are going down, gender based homicides are not: “The study shows that homicide in South Africa is declining, but gender based homicides are disproportionately resistant to the change while rape homicides have proportionately increased. We need to increase our prevention efforts and it is also essential for health, police and justice departments to prioritise such cases so that those who kill women are held accountable and punished.” — Medical Research Council, August 2012

What is an adequate response from the police?
A correct police response to domestic violence could save lives.

To ensure an adequate and helpful police response to domestic violence in order to prevent intimate femicide, one would expect that accurate statistics on domestic violence are recorded and that police are well-trained on domestic violence particularly in areas where it is prevalent.

The primary problem with accessing statistics on domestic violence is the fact that domestic violence is not a standalone crime. What I mean is, domestic violence is often categorised as attempted murder, sexual offences, assault, or child neglect. Other incidences could include situations where a weapon was drawn etc. It is at the discretion of the officer on duty to determine what the crime is classed as.

In addition, the definition of Domestic Violence in the Act is necessarily broad. It encompasses sexual abuse, physical abuse and assault, damage to property, stalking, economic abuse, emotional abuse, and controlling behaviour. Some of these incidences, for example emotional abuse or economic abuse, do not have appropriate legislation to protect the survivors, and thus these cases may be missed at the police station level.

Yet, they should class them overall as domestic violence and, according to the National Instructions 7/1999 relating to the implementation of the DVA in police stations, all domestic violence incidents must be recorded in a domestic violence register. So in theory the South African Police Service should release accurate statistics each year on the extent and nature of domestic violence in South Africa, and prepare accordingly.

Instructions of interest
In light of the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, and the allegations that police had responded to prior incidents ”of a domestic nature” the following instructions are of particular interest:

— Section 4: When an incident of domestic violence is telephoned in to the station, or reported by someone other than the complainant (ie person being abused), they should ”without any unreasonable delay, ensure that a police vehicle … is despatched to the complainant to attend to the matter; ensure that the crew of such a vehicle is informed (i) whether any violence or threatened violence is allegedly or has allegedly been involved in the incident; and (ii) who the complainant is”.
— Section 5: A police officer who attends the scene of domestic violence must “first of all determine whether the complainant is in any danger and take all reasonable steps to secure the scene … and to protect the complainant from any danger”. They should then investigate the allegations of DV and gather evidence about the offence.

Securing a scene is always potentially dangerous for a police officer, particularly if weapons are involved. Of course, police may not always know about weapons, but:

— Section 6 of the national instructions specifies that: “Where a member has reason to believe that a person (a) has threatened or expressed the intention to kill or injure himself or herself or any other person by means of a firearm or any other dangerous weapon; or, (b) who is in possession of a firearm and whose possession thereof is not in his or her interest or in the interest of any other person as a result of his or her physical or mental condition, his or her inclination to violence (whether an arm was used in the violence or not), or his or her dependence on intoxicating liquor or a drug which has a narcotic effect, such member may at any time, in terms of section 110 (1) of the Firearms Control Act, 2000 (Act No. 60 of 2000), without a warrant enter upon and search such place or search such person and seize any arm or ammunition, for the purposes set out in section 102 (l) (a) — (e) of the said Act (which interalia provides that the National Commissioner may declare a person to be unfit to possess a firearm).”

In short, they can take away someone’s guns, when they suspect that they have them.

The DVA thus places a positive duty on the police to provide assistance to victims of domestic violence when taking down such a complaint, and to protect them from any further violence as best they can. It places a duty on them to be proactive, to listen to complaints, and to investigate. Section 18(4) of the Act compels the police to fulfil their obligations in terms of the DVA and the failure to do so amounts to misconduct and calls for disciplinary action against the officials who fail to fulfil their obligations.

We need to empower ourselves by understanding what we should expect of the police when we call them as neighbours, family members, or domestic violence survivors. One way is to download this booklet on DV, print it (double-sided of course) and share it with everyone you know. This knowledge could save lives.


  • Jennifer is a feminist, activist and advocate for women's rights. She has a Masters in Politics from Rhodes University, and a Masters in Creative Writing from UCT. In 2010 she started a women's writing project called 'My First Time'. It focuses on women's stories of significant first time experiences. Buy the book on the site or via Modjaji Books. Jen's first novel, The Peculiars, came out in February 2016 and is published by Penguin. Get it in good book stores, and on


  1. The Creator The Creator 18 February 2013

    This is a good and well-informed post. If we expected the police to do what they are supposed to do, we’d be more effective in criticising and reforming their activities.

  2. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 18 February 2013

    Would be nice if our cops knew the law or could be bothered about it.

    Would also be nice if our national psyche wasn’t one of blaming the abused and excusing the abuser. Most of the cases in domestic abuse are withdrawn the following day or so due to family pressure. The ‘well what did you do to make him hit you’ is the common response.

    Go down to your local women’s shelter and listen to the crazy reasons that they go back to these abusers, time and again. It is the mentality that needs to be changed. A whole culture shift. That is a huge hurdle

  3. Barbra Barbra 19 February 2013

    I had an intruder on my property this morning and waited more than 2 hours for the police to arrive… Had I been in danger I would have been dead.

  4. Ikati Ikati 4 June 2014

    Domestic violence is always fraught with difficulty – not the least because many victims- for whatever reason, either don’t lay charges or withdraw them. The police CANNOT ACT without a charge being laid. It’s that simple.

    I know policemen who would love to beat the shyt out of some of these abusers- but can’t even get them to court because the victim either won’t or is too frightened to lay a charge- and then we wonder why the SAP members give up.

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