Journalist Tanya Farber Explores the Lives of SA’s Notorious Female Killers

Pictures: JEREMY DANIEL

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The statistics speak for themselves: 95 per cent of people who commit murder are male writes journalist/author Tanya Farber about her choice of subject for her book – Blood on her Hands – South Africa’s Most Notorious Female Killers (Jonathan Ball Publishers). DIANE DE BEER gets the lowdown on the book, why she wrote it and why it is so compelling:

It is precisely the percentage of female killers that  makes the stories of the murderers in Blood on her Hands – South Africa’s Most Notorious Female Killers unusual: they come from the small 5 per cent of killers who are female. And this is what intrigued author Tanya Farber – that and covering one of the court cases, which drew her in.

While that already makes them more interesting, especially when coupled with the fact that they are seldom impulsive acts of violence, it also intrigued her to delve into the plotting and planning that went into each murder.

“Dina Rodrigues is a case in point – she had several opportunities to rethink her decision to murder a baby, and yet she stuck to it like glue. Daisy de Melker’s serial killing took place over several years, so what was going on in that mind of hers? I find it fascinating that the wiring could be so wrong inside the human brain.”

As a journalist, her interest was sparked when she was tasked to write court stories. “I am actually a science reporter, but as newsrooms have shrunk, one often writes stories outside of one’s own beat. That said, I have been utterly spellbound by the trials that I have covered, and I am particularly interested in forensics. This, of course, includes forensic psychology: I am particularly interested in the mind of a deviant person, and how that plays out in the courtroom.

“I begin the Najwa Petersen chapter in the actual court room because her public facade in the courtroom, and her interior world, were so very different.”

With the writing, her goal was to imagine a ‘day in the life of this particular woman’. “In some cases, I began with the day of the murder, so we see, for example, Celiwe Mbokazi on the phone om the day of her husband’s murder and we get a sense that she is speaking to her accomplices, knowing full well that this murder might take place in front of the children.

“In other cases, I described a day that would give the reader insight into the murderer’s background. Like in the Phoenix Racing Cloud Theron chapter, it starts off with her as a toddler living in a caravan with her often-absent mother, so I tried to imagine the world through her little-girl eyes,” she explained.

And when it came to choosing the women she would write about, she firstly excluded any woman who one could feel was justified in committing murder.

“Ellen Pakkies, for example, killed her son who was a tik addict and was literally tormenting the family, so she has no place in this book.”

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She wanted to study women who in her opinion could not be absolved of their crime due to circumstances. “Even Charmaine Phillips – one can recognize the wretched and violent childhood she had but does that give her the right to take part in the cold-blooded murder of four men by shooting them at point blank range?” So, she made the cut.

And while she doesn’t think society is softer on women killers, they certainly illicit more interest than do their male counterparts. “As I discuss in the analytical chapter at the end, female killers in the past were often seen as being mad (as in seriously deranged and out of touch with reality) or else what would explain their deviance from being a nurturer?

“The point I make in the book, however, is that female killers can also just kill because they are murderous and bloody-minded just like any male killer who goes about plotting and planning someone else’s demise.”

Marlene Lehnberg, she argues, was just a teenager when she began plotting the murder of her boss’s wife because she was having a red-hot affair with him. “Her ultra conservative upbringing might explain how her brain was shaped, but then consider that there are thousands of others in our country who grew up in conservative households but didn’t go about killing people!”

The chapter dealing with Joey Haarhoof gave her nightmares – literally.

“Even more so than the Chane van Heerden chapter, even though she mutilated and decapitated her victim, and skinned his face.” Haarhoff had this impact for two reasons: Farber was not much older than the victims and remembers clearly the sheer terror of what was going on and the warning issued by her parents. She is also now a mother with two daughters who both fall within the age range of Joey’s victims and so, imagining the pain of the parents, is much more real for her now.

“In short: back then, I could relate to the victims. Now I can relate to the parents.”

It’s fascinating stuff and reading it, because of the way the topic has been approached has you turning the pages – even when in some instances you believe you know the stories. It is the psychological angle, the way this hard-nosed journalist tackles her subjects and then the softer approach, an almost a gentle voice, telling the story, which makes it so insightful.

It’s also telling which of the stories got greater play in the newspapers and media while some, perhaps just in my case, slipped completely under the radar. Even though each one is a story of horror, Van Heerden, Mbokazi and Theron were unknown to me. Why?

That’s probably also part of the greater story. And as a newspaper journalist at the Sunday Times, Farber has special insight into a world of stories that catch the attention and play out in specific ways. And she makes a strong case in a world of fake news and populism.

“Despite all the ‘noise’ of social media, and the power of citizen journalism, it is still crucial to have reliable reporters who can deliver the facts. My approach always with court reporting is to blend the facts of the case with observations in the court room – the silent power of body language, the fascinating way in which the English language is used and abused to paint a picture depending on which side you’re coming from … all of that.

“The media, be it newspapers or reliable digital sites, still have a crucial role to play in conveying this to a readership.”

In conclusion, for those considering telling their own stories or perhaps venturing into the world of  writing, she issues a warning and sound advice: “Writing a book is HARD work and if anyone is considering doing it, make sure it is a topic that absolutely draws you in as a writer or else you will find yourself hating the process.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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