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Women Who Explode Seek Presidential Clemency

Maria Scholtz (42), Meisie Kgomo (41), Elsie Morare (34), Harriet Chidi (?) and Sharle Sebejan (33) have much in common with many women. 

They are victims of domestic abuse.

But, unlike most women, they are all serving long prison sentences for killing their abusive husbands.  

Their plight has been adopted by a group of women’s organisations that have consolidated forces and formed the Justice for Women Campaign (JWC). 

Now these women are forming South African legal history. In a pilot project the Centre For Violence and Reconciliation (CVR) sent an application to President Thabo Mbeki requesting a presidential pardon for Maria Scholtz, which is being followed by a further four applications.  This initiative is supported by the National Network on Violence against women and the Commission On Gender Equality. 

The threefold reason’s for the plea are obvious: These are not dangerous criminals. At the time the crimes were committed there was no judicial system in place to protect them; they suffered from chronic acute violent abuse. 

The women experienced a range of abuses - severe beatings, rape by their husbands as well as actual or threatened abuse of their children and them including psychological abuse (ranging from being locked up under house arrest and verbal insults.) 

Maria, Elsie, Harriet, Meisie and Sharlee appealed for help wherever possible, but this was before the new Constitution passed the Domestic Violence Act in 1999 protecting women had been placed into the Constitution.  Their pleas fell on deaf ears. The exhausted every option under the judicial system. 

Receiving a presidential pardon is their only hope now towards beginning a life with a semblance of normality.  

The compassion received from JWC the is hardly surprising considering that their tales of physical abuse that fell on deaf ears – until, finally, suffering from extreme mental exhaustion, feelings of hopelessness and despair the five finally exploded and resorted to killing.  

In 1997 Maria Scholtz and Sharla Sebejan were sentenced to 20 years and 21 years respectively for killing their husbands.  And in 1994, Meisie Kgomo was sentenced to death and Elsie Morare to 21 years for killing their policeman husbands. Harriet Chidi was sentenced to 15 years with an additional two years correctional supervision. 

Despite the fact that these women have no prior criminal record, and are not considered dangerous, they are cooped in maximum-security wings, sometimes living in a cell with more than 40 prisoners.

These are their stories:

Maria Scholtz’ –Prisoner 94579259; sentenced to 20 years - served 5 years. 

Maria’s life has been one long horror story; that of a woman victimised by people all her life. Prison is an extension of the oppression of life in an environment without an equal power balance.  

She walks timidly into the room, made up and neatly dressed in her prison uniform, with a freshly washed and styled hairdo.  She takes a seat and tucks her legs neatly back while nervously clutching a ball of tissues in the palm of her hand.  

“I married my second husband when I was 31,” she says. “I have three children from my first husband aged.  They were 13, 12 and 9 when I remarried. 

“My husband controlled every aspect of our lives down to the last detail.  As a trained nurse I wasn’t allowed to return to work because a “woman’s place is in the house.”  He kept me isolated from the outside world by forcing me to remain at home all day ever day.” 

“He bought my children no clothes other than one pair of pyjamas each, and after three months of marriage he simply stopped buying food.  We were allowed to eat only bread and water during the day.  Sometimes I would sneak out and steal food for the kids.  At night I prepared his meal and then my children were allowed to eat.” 

“Eventually I went to a social worker.  Then I went to Christelike Maatskaplike Raad, a charitable church organisation.  There was no protection.  Finally I ran home to my parents and tried to get divorced.  But my husband begged me to return promising that he had changed. My father said, ‘It will be okay. Go back and give him another chance.’”  

“The situation deteriorated as did his drinking.  The more he drank the worse he beat my son, raped me and made sexual advances to my teenage daughter.” 

Finally three things destroyed me:  my eldest son started to run away from school.  My drunken husband exposed himself publicly in front of me as well as the kids in the family lounge and finally my young 9 year-old-son said one morning “I don’t want to live here anymore.”  

“I was worn down and terrified. I woke up one morning and thought ‘I am going to kill him.’  

“There seemed no alternative.  No hell could have been worse than the hell on earth endured by living under the same roof as him for those six years.  There was no protection, no places like the Centre For Violence and Reconciliation for women to turn to. He was untouchable.  

Maria’s domestic servant’s boyfriend and an accomplice stabbed Maria’s husband.

In passing sentence the judge said “I would sentence you to life, but because of the mental, sexual and financial abuse, you will serve 20 years in prison.” 

Of prison life Maria says softly, “I am glad they caught me.  Otherwise I would have had a conscience forever. Prison has empowered me to cope and improved me. There is much suffering and it’s good. But the sentence is too long.”

“In prison I share a cell with 28 prisoners.  We have one toilet and 2 showers with just 1 curtain. But, living with my husband was worse than the hell in prison.  I used to be such a nervous wreck.” 

“I have spent six years rehabilitating.  I want to become a better person and not a thing of the past. I have been to drama therapy and a pre-release course held b NICRO.  I belong to the Apostle Church and I pray all the time.  The priest visits on a Sunday.  Then we all share problems. I have learnt that everybody has problems. I praise the Lord all the time.  I still want to keep working at becoming a better person.  I don’t interfere with other prisoners.  I am a quiet person. 

“I now have a grandson who is 1 year old. I didn’t even know when he was born.  I only dream of holding him in my arms and bonding with my children. While I was on trial my eldest son Dawid burnt to death with a friend in the house.  My other son was in a children’s home for two years for stealing. My children really need a mother.” 

Pools of water form in Maria’s large blue eyes and trickle down her rough cheek, falling unheeded into her lap. In prison tears are common; nobody pays them much heed. 

“My plea for pardon was sent to Parliament nearly one and a half years ago. I keep hearing that the Justice Minister is thinking of giving us clemency.  It’s totally nerve wracking.  Is he going to reduce my sentence and give me freedom?  Will I be able to hold my grandchild and play with him as a free person?” 

Meisie Kgomo (41) – Prisoner 93870633; sentenced to death; commuted to 20 years when death sentence was abolished in 1995 - served 9 years.  

Despite her cheerful demeanour and playful hairstyle of braided plaits sprouting upwards from her hair, Meisie’s brutal suffering is unthinkable.  

“I grew up seeing my mother abused,” When it happened to my mom I thought this is what relationships do.  This is how life is,” Shrugs Meisie. 

“I have four children, two with my second husband whom I killed. My husband beat me and raped my daughter when she was 12 years old.  My mother laid a charge against him, but it made no difference whatsoever. 

“I was employed at the Marula Sun Hotel.  I got home late from a work-shift and he beat me mercilessly.  He drank a lot, and while drinking he stabbed me on the head.  I fell. He cleaned the floor, and then locked the kids outside the house and left me lying on the floor.” 

Matter-of-factly Meisie says, “I loved the man.  My parents kept begging me to divorce him.  When he stabbed me I was in hospital for weeks.  Then I laid a charge against him.  It was useless.  I begged my brother to help and he and 2 friends took him in their car and stabbed him to death. 

Meisie has come to terms with her crime and is taking responsibility and thinking about it. 

“Taking a human’s life is serious,” she says.  “I look back at my children and see the impact it had on them.” 

Of her life now Meisie says, “I have learnt to communicate with people. 

We live 37 in a cell. I am on the top bunk.  There is very little room to move in our cell.

I have been taught to be strong and not allow myself to get hurt.  

“If I was abused now after what I have been taught by NICRO in prison, I would know where to go for help and what to do.  But, I will never marry again. Ever! I just want to be with my children.  I hurt them so much.  One of my children won’t even visit me. God is alive though. I pray always.  God helped me to escape death row. I still remember the time they measured me for the rope before my sentence was commuted. God is wonderful. I have been taken courses in hairdressing in prison, and I work in the prison hair salon. I also know how to knit now, so if I am released I should be able to get work.  I am also learning how to make porcelain dolls”. 

Elsie Morare (36) – Prisoner No. 94014404 – Sentenced to 21 years; served 8 years and 4 months. 

Elsie is extremely quiet. She speaks only when spoken to, and her attitude reflects a great deal of what has happened to her. Her children have been alienated from her – and this is life’s greatest hardship for her.   

Elsie’s late policeman husband was physically, emotionally and financially abusive.  She often had to rely on charity and food from friends and strangers.  Elsie had one friend and ally in life – her mother with whom she shared an enormous bond. 

When Elsie’s mother died her husband was given the news and never passed it on to Elsie. She heard about her mother’s death from a stranger four days later. That was the final emotional blow. She exploded and shot him. 

“I am keeping very well,” says Elsie quietly.  “Although lI am crowded in with 31 other prisoners in the cell. I work in the workshop every day where I sit quietly and sew clothes for the men.  I have not spoken to my children for 2 months now.  I haven’t seen them this year.  I write to them. I don’t know if they have replied to my letter.  They have no money for stamps.  There are 4 children. My youngest is 12 and the eldest is 18.” 

“When I last spoke to my children, they said, “Mom when are you coming home.  We miss you so much. My family all cry.  I say ‘Don’t cry. I will be home soon.’ My kids visited Robben Island and it affected them badly.  They said, “Now we know what it must be like inside. You must come out.  I answered, ‘in good time”” 

The CVR are applying for clemency for me.  I am up for clemency and the plea has been going for a year. I am hopeful although it seems as if nothing is happening sometimes.” 

“I know when I come out of prison I will go into business. I have a knitting certificate. I am also learning a business management course in prison.” 

“Through NICRO I have learnt how to behave in the outside world.  Now I can be really tough enough to take what comes.  I choose the friends that I think are okay in prison.  I have really only one close friend and we understand each other well.” 

Sharle Sebejan (33) – Prisoner No 97257000; Sentenced to 21 years; served almost 6 years. 

Sharle is composed and intelligent.  Her dignity and refined upbringing prevented her from admitting to her family that her husband was torturing her on an hourly basis.  Her embarrassment was almost as bad as the pain meted out to her. 

“I was married for 9 agonising years.  My children are 11 and 9 years.  During my marriage I kept trying harder, always believing it was my fault.  I believed I could make it right if I tried this or that. Nothing made a difference. Just the sight of me provoked him. He was always drunk anyway.” 

“I went to the police and a welfare society.  The said it was a marital matter, and they couldn’t do anything about it. In those days women had no protection.” 

“I was an underwriter at an insurance company and I liked my work.  Eventually though, despite my work I had a nervous breakdown.  My neighbour found me passed out.  I am very close to my parents, but they live in Newcastle and they didn’t know anything of what was going on.” 

“I lived a very sheltered and protected life. I was brought up in the Hindu faith.  We are a close- knit family. How could I ever admit to my parents I was punched and beaten – that I had plates of food thrown at me more often than not. There were no good times. There were no times without alcohol in his blood.” 

“I know my family feel guilty for not realising what was happening.  Of course it isn’t their fault.  Eventually I stupidly got two strangers to teach him a lesson by beating him up.  They killed him instead.  I was convicted of murder and sentenced for ‘Murder Without Intent’.  

“Prison with all its hardship is better than life with my husband.  But I miss my parents and my children terribly.  I want so much to bring my children up.” 

“Whenever they visit me I promise myself I won’t cry.  It never works. I always break down.” 

Religious faith has kept me going.  The Hari Krishna group visit sometimes.  I am a devout Hindu and I enjoy the philosophy of Hari Krishna.” 

“In prison I am studying counselling through INTEC.  It is a psychology correspondence course, and an educational psychologist helps me on the inside. 

“Psychologically I have healed. I have found inner peace. 

“I am a very much stronger person now compared to then. Nobody will ever raise their voice at me needlessly again.  I am scared to every trust anybody again though”. 

Prisoner Number: 97694230, Harriet Chidi fared no better. She had four children with her policeman husband. She was beaten by both husband and his parents who never approved of her believing her to be ‘urbanised’ and a woman who ‘bewitched’ their son Marcus. 

Her husband threatened to shoot her with his service revolver several times. He also hit her on the head with the butt of his gun and on her face.  She subsequently needed stitches to her eye area. 

Harriet reported the violence to her husbands’ station commander who sometimes confiscated his service pistol from him.  He was chronically unfaithful to Harriet and later began bringing his mistress to the family home. 

The combination of abuses and humiliations left Harriet emotionally disturbed and she was treated with anti-depressants and other medications.  In addition, all the children witnessed their mother’s abuse and were also abused by means of physical assault, beating and slapping. 

Shortly before he was killed, Harriet’s husband actually shot at Harriet and she thought he was going to kill her.  He told her frequently he wanted to start his life afresh with another woman.  Harriet then approached a man to help her with the killing and her husband was shot the same weekend. 

So what does the Department of Justice say about the plight of these women? 

“Each case will be considered on merit,” commented Paul Setsetse, spokesman for Mr. P. Maduna, Minister Of Justice. 

“We have to check what the law says.  These women were found guilty in Court.  The information was placed before the court when they were committed to prison. Some women in the past have murdered husbands to benefit from their death. We really need to scrutinise the case by benefit.”

Regarding the fact that these women are not considered a danger to society, and that the first case, that of Maria Scholtz was presented for consideration 16 months ago, Mr. Setsetse said, “We will apply our minds based entirely on the information we have at present.  There is no time frame on this. The cases will be considered together.  However we will reconsider the case within the next few weeks.  It should be finalised then.” 

In the meanwhile, Maria Scholtz, Elsie Morare, Meise Kgomo and Sharle Sebejan remain locked up, crippled by a chronic lack of self-esteem.  They need to rely on hope and prayers that they will be released into a normal society where the sun shines every day.


Maria Scholtz case has been waiting for consideration with the Justice Department for 16 months 

The cases of Morare, Chidi, Sebejan, Scholtz and Kgomo have been investigated thoroughly.  There is corroborating evidence and written statements by witnesses that all 5 suffered inhumane as well as evidence of great suffering inflicted on their children through the mothers’ long jail terms.

At the time the women killed their tormentors domestic violence had little or no judicial legislative recognition.  It was only in 1999 that the Constitutional Court ruled that domestic violence is a human rights violation and that the state is obliged to take steps to protect women. 

Gender co-ordinator for The Centre For Violence and Reconciliation (CVR), Lisa Vetten points out that the women were given harsher sentences because the attacks on the men abusing them appeared to be premeditated.  However, this needs to be understood in the context of the fear suffered in their abusive relationships.   “Not only were the women too terrified or too powerless to fight back in the heat of the moment, but they also lack the physical strength to beat adult men to death.  As a consequence they – as well as many other abused women - sometimes resort to using weapons or a third party to defend themselves, or wait until the man is asleep or otherwise vulnerable.” 

In sharp contrast to the above cases, Justice Minister Penuell Maduna pardoned 33 dangerous male prisoners in August 2002 ago. These criminals were previously refused amnesty by the TRC. 

Among the prisoners granted amnesty was Dumisani Ncamazana. Within 2 weeks of his release he was erroneously charged with murder.  

He was later cleared of the charge of murder due to lack of proof, but he was caught carrying a gun.  Minister Penuell Maduna commented at the time “The fact that one person allegedly committed a crime, for me it’s neither here no there, because what you are saying to me is that I must be so cautious as never to make any mistakes whatsoever.” 


Ex-boxer Ricky Abbot (40) was sentenced to only 10 years’ jail, five of which were suspended for five years, for beating his girlfriend Johanna van der Merwe (42) to death at their Newlands home in October 1998.  Johannesburg Regional Court magistrate Paul du Plessis said Abbott could be freed and put under house arrest after serving about a third of the effective five-year sentence.  Abbott has 12 previous convictions dating back to the 1980’s, including attempted murder, assault, housebreaking and theft.  He was also sentenced in 96 to three years’ correctional supervision for assaulting his ex-wife, Marie Abbott, on five occasions and assaulting her children on three occasions.    


South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world.  Recent South African Police Service records show that 51 249 rapes were reported in 1999. This increased to 52 860 in 2000.  Since democracy in 1994 recorded rapes have increased by 28% according to Institute for Security Studies. 

A study conducted by the Medical Research Council in three provinces found that 28% of women’ have been physically abused by a current or former partner and 50% of women suffer from emotional and financial abuse. 

There is a great need to train judges and magistrates.  

A study on femicide conducted by Lisa Vetten -, tireless champion of women rights  -and gender co-ordinator of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation revealed: 

On average one Gauteng woman gets’ murdered by her intimate male partner every six days.

The average prison sentence for a man who kills his partner is less than 10 years. 

In 2001, SA Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi complained that the police were unable to implement the Domestic Violence Act due to a lack of resources. 

The Domestic Violence Act obliges police to arrest domestic abusers who violate protection orders. 

The Domestic Violence Act informs women of their rights and assists them to find medical treatment, counselling and shelter. 

Failure to implement The Domestic Violence Act by police is considered misconduct and could result in disciplinary action.


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