Public outrage grows after violent attacks

"I FEEL terrible about what I’ve done and I’m willing to accept my punishment.” These are the words of repeat offender Brent Cunningham, who is in custody once again after his girlfriend was beaten up so badly last week that she had to be hospitalised.

Speaking through his sister Trishke, who visited him at St Alban’s Prison yesterday, Cunningham asked her to relay his remorse to the media.

And in what has been one of the most talked about cases of assault in Port Elizabeth, Cunningham’s family has finally spoken out about the hurt and humiliation caused by the troubled 21-year-old’s actions.

The have also called for calm amid the growing outrage within the community.

This is the third time in a matter of years that the Port Elizabeth fitness instructor, who comes from a prominent Bay family, has been arrested for a violent crime. And each time it has grabbed headlines.

Although Cunningham handed himself over to police last week, social media is still abuzz, with locals threatening to take the law into their own hands.

"We are not asking for mercy. We are just asking that people take a step back from this and let justice take its course. It should not be a public trial,” his sister Trishke said.

Cunningham’s girlfriend of eight months, Shireen Ballan, 36, from Morningside, was rushed to hospital by bystanders after losing consciousness during the attack on December 27.

She has since been discharged and is recovering at home. She has declined to talk to the media on the advice of the investigating officer.

Although it was a photograph of Ballan’s cut and bloodied face posted on social networking sites that got the PE community talking, it was the realisation that Cunningham had received a suspended sentence of two years in prison in 2011 for beating up his own father, Bluewater Bay Primary School principal Malcolm Cunningham, that sparked outrage.

Just months before Cunningham was convicted of the attack on his father, Malcolm had defended his son in another court for the alleged murder of 19-year-old school friend Juan Matthews.

Although Cunningham admitted stabbing Juan five times in the head and neck with a kitchen knife in October 2009, the court found that he had acted in self-defence.

In each trial, the court heard how Cunningham’s obsession with building muscle, and his use of steroids, had contributed to his aggressive behaviour.

"He was like a ticking time bomb,” Trishke said.

"He has been advised on more than one occasion to stop taking steroids, obviously this causes him to be aggressive,” she said.

If Cunningham is convicted of assaulting Ballan, his suspended sentence will come into effect.

Trishke said although her family was hurt, angry and embarrassed, they still loved her brother unconditionally.

"We don’t justify his actions at all. Both my parents are well respected in this town and as far as parenting goes, they have aced it.

"We were taught good morals and values and those who know us would agree. But there comes a time in your child’s life when they have to take what has been taught and instilled by their parents and choose their own path, make their own choices and take responsibility when doing so.”

She said although her parents had distanced themselves from the matter, she was Cunningham’s only sister and therefore she would be there for him.

But news of Cunningham’s arrest has dredged up painful memories for the Matthews family. Juan’s sister, Cindy, said the latest incident had opened old wounds.

Her cousin, Yolande Jacobs Vlok, said they hoped the courts would think twice before releasing Cunningham again. Her husband, Gerhard Vlok, said the family had been waiting for Cunningham to step out of line, while friend Marco Blom feared if Cunningham was released a third time, he would hurt someone else.

Port Elizabeth psychologist Louise Malan said Cunningham needed to be assessed by a professional who could then prescribe relevant treatment for his aggression.

"It depends, if he is a psychopath and doesn’t have a conscience, then therapy won’t help.

"But if that is not the case and there is an underlying emotional problem, then therapy could be the answer,” she said.

Malan said it sounded like the alleged attack on Ballan was driven by jealousy.

She said jealousy was a strong emotion and a fear of loss or abandonment could have driven Cunningham to lash out physically.

"It is difficult to say, not knowing the whole story, but it sounds like he was possessive over his girlfriend and if he couldn’t have her, he didn’t want any one else to have her.”

Malan said Cunningham, whose parents are divorced, may have chosen to date an older woman because he saw her as a maternal figure.

"He may have had a fear of loss.”

She said steroids were not necessarily the cause of his aggression, but once tempers flared, it could exacerbate the problem.

Aubrey Luff, a kick-boxing instructor and gym owner who organises fitness tournaments across the Eastern Cape, said his trainees were tested randomly for steroid use because of the dangerous effects of the supplement.

Luff said steroids caused extreme aggression and a lack of self-control.

He said regular usage with gym workouts enabled a man to put on up to 25kg in just six months.

"This is obviously not healthy. It breaks the mind and body down. It attacks the heart, liver, kidney and back.

"You will also almost instantly see a change in behaviour, which later leads to depression.”

Luff said while the illegal supplement was expensive, it was often sold under the counter at many gyms and fitness institutes around the country.

Sports physician Dr Konrad von Hagen said while it depended on the personality type, steroids were a great cause of aggression and depression.

"A lot of people use steroids and are fine, but if there is an underlying emotional problem, they can definitely aggravate one's mood. I have seen it before . . . people land in trouble,” Von Hagen said.

This is a version of an article that appeared in the print edition of the Weekend Post on Saturday, January 5, 2013.