On a Thursday evening not so long ago I decided to stop by Woolies on the way home. I got off the train earlier, got some groceries, and undertook the walk from Claremont to my house in Harfield. I had underestimated the weather. It was howling with wind and I spent most of the journey trying to hold onto my long coat and my shopping bag. It took me longer than usual and so it was darker than I would have liked when I got to the street nearest to my house.
In the distance I saw a couple walking towards me. They were walking beside one another but I could see that they were arguing without being able to hear them. Their body language told me that they were intoxicated. They were stumbling, he in battered-down jeans and a muddy jersey, carrying a big bag; her in a grey tracksuit with a beanie on, hands in her pockets.
As we drew closer to one another, me on one side of the street, them on the other, I could hear their shouts more clearly. They spoke Afrikaans, a language that imbued a “fuck you” with a forceful f and cutting k. He was screaming it at her as she stumbled behind him shouting back. Just as they passed she shouted “fuck this. I don’t want to be with you anymore. I don’t want to sleep on the streets. I want to go home”. I slowed down worried about what was going to happen.
He turned to her, without fear or worry about who was watching, and body slammed her into a four by four. Before I could shout, he stood back and began to kick and knee her in the stomach. His movements and violence seemed practiced, routine, methodical. He didn’t even stop to put down his bag. This was not the first time he had silenced someone by hurting them. This was not the first time he had kicked a woman.
As I shouted and started to cross the road towards them he pulled a bottle from his bag and raised it up to strike her. I was in the middle of the street by this stage and still screaming but he showed no signs of stopping. At that point I experienced time drawn out and elongated. I had a lengthy split second of wondering whether I would keep walking and get between them, and if I did what would happen.
I was saying to myself as my feet kept moving, well at least if I get between them and he hits me, it will be more likely that he would be arrested. After all, he doesn’t know me. The police wouldn’t be able to write it off as a domestic dispute. They wouldn’t be able to ignore his violence as something “private” or “explicable”. It would have to be recognised for what it was. Assault.
A car pulled up next to them and a man jumped out. The man withdrew his bottle from above his head. Others came from the restaurants around the street. We all began to shout, telling the man to stop and the woman to walk away. She wanted to follow him. She began to follow him, all the while crying and shouting “please phone the police, he hits me all the time. Please”.
The crowd begged her to walk the other way. We moved closer, sensing that the violence was, for this few minutes at least, at bay. We got closer telling her it was her chance to leave and go home. That she shouldn’t follow him. Eventually she turned and started to walk in the direction they had just come from. He, full of bravado, shouted after her, swearing at her all the while. Threatening her.
His bravado angered the crowd, in particular the men who had gathered. They shouted at him to move along, that they would “moer” him if he tried to follow her. I watched the violence and anger in them so easily come forward and wondered where they normally channelled it. I began to call the police, and watched as he turned, now bored with the attention from the onlookers, and slowly walked away.
The police took his description and the name of the road he had walked down. They didn’t take my details before they hung up. I have no idea what happened to either of them. I wonder what happened to her. Did she sleep alone on the streets that night, or did she look for him? Was she able to find shelter?
Women’s shelters and NGOs in the Western Cape and across the country have faced funding cuts for the past few years. Many of them have had to close down or severely restrict the services they provide. One shelter, Sisters Incorporated, ran at a loss in 2011, 2012, and in 2013 operated on only two months’ worth of reserve costs at any one time. Organisations like Rape Crisis have also publicised frequent financial challenges.
This is not because of competition between NGOs, or because the state is providing sufficient services on its own, but because of severe cut-backs in funding to those NGOs from the government. Between 2010 and 2013, 100 jobs were lost between just 17 organisations. And the job losses are not the only losses — that means that those organisations were not able to deliver full services to the women that needed them. Many survived on the efforts of volunteers and dedicated staff, but what about the ones that had to close down? What happened to all of the women who would have used their services?