WILL THE PISTORIUS CASE CHANGE SOUTH AFRICA?
Sometimes a murder manages to shine a light on a particular problem. The Sandy Hook School massacre ignited a national conversation, albeit a still unsatisfactory one, on gun violence. And the shooting of Reeva Steenkamp by South Africa’s star runner Oscar Pistorius may open a window on some of the darker facts of life for so many South Africans, women in particular. (Pistorius is being charged with premeditated murder, a charge his family has denied on his behalf, without offering an explanation of how he came to shoot her; he has yet to enter a plea.)
In South Africa, many, if not most, women have experienced domestic abuse; many of them live with it on a routine basis, with very little recourse and no headlines about their fate. For example, the World Health Organization last year reported that some sixty thousand women and children in South Africa were victims of domestic violence on a monthly basis—the highest reported rate in the world.
Other studies in the past few years indicate that South Africa has one of the highest incidents of rape in the world, with one survey in country’s bustling economic heartland, Gauteng province, showing that some 37.4 per cent of men admitted to rape, and 25.3 per cent of women said that they had been raped. It is likely that these numbers are even higher in rural areas where few studies are conducted, few cases reported—either out of fear or in acquiescence to cultural realities. A study by the highly regarded Medical Research Council, three years back, revealed that the majority of men surveyed and more than half of the women believed “a woman should obey her husband.” David Smith wrote in the Guardian that
The survey also found that 32 percent of men and women agreed that ‘in any rape case, one would have to question whether the victim is promiscuous,’ while 20.1 percent of men and 15.6 percent of women said that ‘in some rape cases, women want it to happen.’
Tell that to, among others, the close to three dozen women who’ve been murdered in South Africa by men who first raped them to “correct” their lesbianism. The crimes (which I’ve written about in The New Yorker) occur in alarming numbers even though, in theory, South Africa has progressive laws on the books that include the legalization of gay marriage. A five-year-old Domestic Violence Act also appears to have had little effect on the horrendous domestic abuse and rape statistics and the culture of silence that exists throughout the country.
Or, more recently, tell that to the family of seventeen-year-old Anene Booysen, who was gang raped and murdered in a rural area some two hours outside of Cape Town. She was so severely mutilated that her family reportedly has asked the details of the condition her body was found in not be released.
Booysen’s case has drawn national attention as all segments of the population—from civil society to government—reacted strongly, with the response seeming to suggest, possibly, a turning point in the national consciousness. It even drew words from South African President Jacob Zuma, who called it “shocking,” “cruel” and “most inhumane,” saying such a crime has “no place in our country.”
Zuma also called for stiffer penalties for anyone committing such a crime. He, himself, was once charged with rape, and testified that it was his duty as a Zulu man to satisfy the woman who accused him. Zuma was acquitted, but critics have argued his behavior didn’t help those fighting against rape and abuse of women in the country.
The other issue coming to light in the Pistorius case is that of armed civilians. While South Africa’s murder rate and other crimes have finally begun falling for the past few years, including what is known in the country as “femicide”—murder of an intimate partner, the highest category of the murders in South Africa—the nineteen-year-old democracy remains one of most violent countries, with Johannesburg listed among the ten most dangerous cities in the world. The greatest victims of crime are black South Africans. Confidence in the police services, now militarized, is low.
Gun ownership—legal and otherwise—fell in South Africa following 2004 Firearms Control Regulations requiring a competency test, but it remains widespread. And while those who can afford it live in well-protected compounds, with security guards and hard-to-scale electrified fences, those compounds are not immune to armed home invasions. Friends who know the walled community in Pretoria where Pistorius lived, and Steenkamp died, tell me that it is hard to imagine a breach in the security there. During the days of Apartheid, high, electrified fences were the sole province of whites attempting to keep out “the black hordes.” Now, even blacks who can afford it maintain the same kinds of protection.
The Pistorius case, like one involving Shrien Dewani, a well-off British businessman accused of organizing the murder of his new twenty-eight-year-old bride while they were on their honeymoon in South Africa (he had denied it), drew far more media attention than what are regarded as the routine murders in South Africa’s black townships and rural areas. Pistorius is, of course, a high-profile figure with, if not a rags-to-riches story, certainly one that is extraordinary in its triumph over physical adversity. He was born without fibulas, and both his legs were amputated before he was a year old. His storybook victories in the Paralympics and Olympic achievements put him in a class of his own. South Africans have an intensely passionate love of sports, a factor many believe helped end Apartheid, as sanctions against the brutal, white-ruled regime kept its athletes out of international competition. Pistorius was a hero, widely embraced. His fans even forgave him after he had to apologize for challenging the winner of a race he lost by questioning the length of his blades.
Reeva Steenkamp, a model and law-school graduate, hardly fits the public image of a victim (and perhaps will be a reminder that, when it comes to domestic violence, there is no single profile). Ironically, she herself had begun to speak out against domestic violence, tweeting about it and writing on Instagram a few days before she was shot dead, “I woke up in a happy safe home this morning. Not everyone did. Speak out against the rape of individuals in SA. RIP Anene Booysen. #rape #crime #sayNO.”
Soon, Oscar Pistorius will have his day in Court. And maybe, just maybe, so will the issues that continue to cast a shadow on a country that otherwise holds out so much promise.
Photograph by Liza van Deventer/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty.