NEXT time I read of a woman murdered by a relative, close friend or partner, I won’t Tweet my outrage or FB friends moaning about the “scourge” of femicide. Instead, I will think carefully about whether I might have looked away when intervening could have saved a life.
What prompts this resolution is the case of Durban woman Chantel Goliath. Her death did not make national headlines. It is barely recorded by the media and is missing altogether from the law reports even though her boyfriend was tried, convicted and sentenced for killing her.
We hardly even know her name: the only newspaper story about the case, published about 18 months after she died, referred to her as “Chantel”; the magistrate who tried the case spelled her name “Chantell”, and at another place in the record it is given as “Chantelle”. The man who murdered her, boyfriend Xolani Bhengu, never mentioned her name. When he petitioned the courts to overturn his conviction and sentence, he referred to her, repeatedly, just as “the deceased”.
Bhengu might have been reticent to touch on her name in those documents but on the night of 1 May 2014, he was altogether less reluctant. He went to work on his girlfriend in a most public place. For over half an hour he kept up a vicious assault on her in the pub where he worked as a bouncer. Many people were there, drinking. Many of them would have seen the assault. No one did a thing.
One witness, the woman’s friend, saw. She recorded that “the deceased cried for help”, but that no one intervened though there were other patrons at the bar during that time. She said that for at least 30 minutes the man beat the woman with his open hands and his fists.
The barman saw too. He “told the accused to stop fighting”, but did not intervene beyond that. Later on, he saw the woman lying on the floor, blood coming out of her nose. The man told him she had fallen down the stairs.
The woman who cleans at the bar saw. She saw the man hitting the woman with open hands on her face and with clenched fists on her chest. She heard the woman crying, and saying that her “abdomen was sore”. She saw the woman go to the toilets, and then saw the man follow her, pull her out and continue beating her. She saw the woman fall on the floor and the man pull her up. She said she did tell the man to stop assaulting the woman.
The next state witness also saw. She is a specialist forensic pathologist. She saw 16 injuries on the woman including abrasions and bruises on her face and on the side and back of her head, linear bruises, bruises on the upper and lower back, bruises and abrasions on the arms and buttocks, lacerations above the left eyebrow. She also saw a laceration of the left atrium of the heart, contusion of the thyroid gland, deep scalp bruising and multiple, other, abrasions and bruises. She saw two broken ribs and 100 ml of blood in the rib cage. She concluded that the woman died from “a blunt force chest injury” caused by a clenched fist or a punch for example, and she said she did not believe the injuries were the result of “falling down the stairs” as the man claimed.
The man – what did he say? He helped the woman with the groceries she brought home when she came back from visiting her sister. Then they enjoyed an evening with other patrons at the bar, drinking and chatting. After the bar closed, he returned to his room and on the way found the woman, lying at the bottom of the stairs where she had fallen. He “picked her up. He took her to the room and placed her on the bed. He noticed bleeding in her right nostril and took a white wet towel which he placed on her forehead to stop the bleeding.”
Then she complained she was hungry and made them a meal. They both slept. When he woke next morning, he found blood on his shirt and on the pillowcases. “He called out for her but there was no response. He then climbed out of bed and saw the deceased lying on the floor at the end of the bed.” She was dead.
He said he could not understand why all the other witnesses lied about him assaulting the woman as they had a good relationship with him.
At the end of the trial the magistrate sentenced the man to 15 years. He appealed against conviction and sentence but the two high court judges who heard the appeal were unimpressed. They said he was a poor witness who had obviously lied.
Next he petitioned the supreme court of appeal, asking that those judges accept to hear his challenge against conviction and sentence. That court, having considered the record, has now declined to hear the appeal.
A number of things struck me about the record. First, the way the woman is virtually anonymous. We know almost nothing about her – her age, whether she had children, what work she did. Not even the spelling of her name is certain. By comparison, the court heard a great deal about the man via the evidence put up in mitigation of sentence. He is far more “present” than the woman he killed, as though all that she was, was beaten out of her.
Then there is the problem that Bhengu has refused to admit he so much as touched her. It’s not merely that he shows no remorse; he has distanced himself completely, accepts no responsibility, denies any role in her death. He has maintained that stance throughout, even in his petition to the appeal court.
But worst of all is the inaction of all those people who must have seen what was happening but did nothing, not even call the police. Was it out of fear that he might attack them too? Or was it because of the sense that what partners do to each other is a private matter and has nothing to do with anyone else? Or because of a view that still shames us as a society: the view that a man “owns his woman” and is entitled to beat her up whenever he feels the urge to “punish”?
* First published in Legalbriefs, 30 May 2017