The coverage surrounding the ongoing court case over the death of Netshisaulu Avhatakali and the representation of his wife as a “black widow” murderer typifies recent coverage on women involved in their husband’s deaths. The coverage of this court case brought to light other cases, in which women were suspects in the killings of their husbands. It is interesting to note the bias in partner killing reports, where women kill their husbands for financial gain, whilst men kill their intimate partners out of an irrational rage1.  Both these examples exclude systemic physical and emotional abuse and, in so doing, create the impression that these events are somehow insulated from broader social problems.

The MMP supports fair, balanced, equitable and ethical coverage that highlight the issues that are of interest and affect the public. The coverage of the Avhatakali court case is of public interest. However, it is disturbing to note that the media is making a leap from the present trial to other cases where women were suspected of killing their husbands. This comparison implies guilt of the women discussed; which is a violation of defendant’s constitutional right to a free and fair trail.

The coverage of this story also sparked a series of articles that represented women as being greedy, marrying with the express purpose of cashing in the life insurance policy and the estate of the husband after they have killed them. The article in the Sunday World on the 7 January 2007, p.9 “Get rid of the dude” is indicative of this type of reporting. This story speaks about a husband hiding his insurance policies out of a fear that he will be murdered for the money. The new term invented for this supposedly new and prominent phenomenon is “family heist”.

The Mail and Guardian online (4 January 2007) published a story with the headline “Surge in contract killings” and the City Press (7 January 2007, p.5) published a story headlined “A marriage may turn lethal if the woman feels unhappy…”. These stories talked about the perceived “surge” and the “alarming increase” of such murders respectively and highlighted some of the stories on the murder of husbands that made headlines in the past years. In both these stories, only ten cases were presented to support this claim of an “alarming increase”. On such thin evidence, married women are stereotyped as being greedy enough to kill their intimate partner.

It seems that the City Press article contradicts itself, concluding the article about women killing for money “It shows that most women killed in response to ongoing abuse with a very low rate for financial gain”. The impression created with the exaggerated language is that the statistics, of women killing for money, were frightening. This is reinforced by mentioning cases of women who allegedly killed for money. By mentioning the case of Avhatakali Netshisaulu, the impression is created that this is another example of a woman killing for money. The Mail and Guardian also made a similar link by writing the story about the “Surge in contract killing” and maintaining in the opening paragraph “The recent arrest of Mulalo Sivhidzo in connection with the murder of Avhatakali Netshisaulu, the son of City Press editor Mathatha Tsedu, points to a possible national surge in contract killings, analysts say. This line was followed by an outline of other cases, in which it is alleged that the killings where motivated by financial gain.

An indication of the media complicity in supporting such ideas is provided by an article that appeared in the Mail and Guardian online “Surge in contract killings” 4 January 2007. In this item, one source indicates “…the media was also not blameless. It could be that the media is focusing more on this type of crime because the people involved in it are usually high profile…” Such sentiments reflect that most of the cases reported by the media where of high profile personalities, from Nokwanda Ngombane to Taliep Pietersen’s wife Najwa, and that most newspapers published the same cases. It would seem that an “alarming increase” in such incidents, would lead to more, less prominent cases being reported on.

The Daily Sun 16 January 2007, p.2 published a story with the headline “wife kills husband over R180”. This story is problematic in that it does not provide the reader with adequate and accurate information on the case, so as to reach their own conclusions over what happened. The beginning of the story reports what happened as fact, but quotes no source for the murder being linked to money. The impression is created that it was the police, who are quoted later make this link. There is, however, no evidence in the article that this is the case. This story does not look at other factors that may have lead to the woman allegedly stabbing her husband. This story, with a lack of information, and a focus on money with no witness to back up the claims presented in the report in the Daily Sun, could be part of a problematic pattern in the way husband-killing is represented in some media.

This is illustrated in comparing the Daily Sun story to the story on the same incident in the Sunday Times 14 January 2007, p 25 “Family murders highlight our fraying social fabric”. The article expresses the following sentiments: “in just the past two weeks there has been the killing of a mother by her 14-year old son, a husband killing his wife with an axe…… While all are acts of considerable violence, the latter instances of family murder appear to have been emotionally driven, “by a family argument, a breakdown of a relationship or marriage, or a drunken rage”. This story does not mention financial gain in the case of the axe man, and the crime is said to have been emotionally driven. In the Daily Sun story, the factors mentioned in the Sunday Times are not looked at. This may indicate that woman murderers are being stereotyped by media as murdering for money. A short leap is to stereotype women generally as homicidally greedy. This is in contrast to men who are stereotyped as murdering as a result of sudden incontrollable rage.

The common thread to all these stories is that a “trend” has been identified by media of women murdering their husbands for money based on a limited sample of high-profile people. These examples are being extrapolated to other cases, which do not necessarily have anything to do with money. Although there are a few women involved in the killing of their husbands for financial gain has increased, the language used by the media when covering the issue, has made it look like the situation is out of control and stereotypes women. This is in violation of some of the women covered human rights and serves to cast all women in the same mould. It also does not reflect that women are far more often killed by their intimate partners than they kill their intimate partners, for whatever reason.

By Luzuko Pongoma

1The portrayal of men as gripped by an irrational rage has been documented in the MMP’s ‘Men in the Media’ report.