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Cry, the Misogynistic Country

Saturday 23 February 2013

By EUSEBIUS McKAISER JOHANNESBURG

IT is a tragic truism that South Africa is one of the world’s most violent countries outside of war zones. And for all of its international headlines, the Valentine’s Day shooting of the model Reeva Steenkamp by the prosthetic-legged Olympic hero Oscar Pistorius is ultimately a very South African story.

Mr. Pistorius’s charm, beauty, talent and refusal to live a marginal life as a disabled person made him a marketer’s dream. And for a fragile South Africa, he was a symbol of the country’s obsession with overcoming obstacles. Mr. Pistorius’s personal story reminded us of the country’s miraculous tale of deliverance from apartheid to freedom. But, as with South Africa, a lot of uncomfortable truths lay beneath Mr. Pistorius’s and Ms. Steenkamp’s seeming domestic bliss.

It is often assumed that widespread poverty, an official unemployment rate of over 25 percent and deep inequality are the drivers behind violence in South Africa. Many analysts claim that is why poorer countries in the region with lower levels of inequality have less gratuitous violent crime. South Africa’s uniquely unequal distribution of wealth, the argument goes, feeds the country’s violence. But the Pistorius case shows that violent crime is not limited to the poor or committed only by impoverished blacks against wealthy whites. South Africa’s apartheid past normalized violence as a means of dealing with personal and nationwide problems and it has created a paranoid nation obsessed with the threat of crime, where those with the means arm themselves heavily and shut themselves into gated communities.

Initially, responses to news of Mr. Pistorius’s arrest seemed to fall along South Africa’s familiar racial fault lines. Comments from some whites on news Web sites indicated widespread acceptance of Mr. Pistorius’s claim that he mistook his girlfriend for an intruder and an easy identification with the fear that would lead to reflexively grabbing and firing a gun lest a black criminal be lurking behind the bathroom door. They blamed the black-led government’s inability to effectively address the country’s crime epidemic for the “tragedy.” The implication was clear: but for black leaders’ incompetence in assuring public safety, Ms. Steenkamp might still be alive.

Meanwhile, some black callers to my radio show were quick to pass judgment on Mr. Pistorius. They reminded me that the media talks liberally about accusations against black leaders, like the billionaire Tokyo Sexwale, who is alleged to have abused his wife. Their impulse to judge Mr. Pistorius hastily is driven in part by the desire to prove that a white man — seemingly nice and virtuous — is as capable of wrongdoing as a black one.

But as the narrative in court becomes more complex, and the possibility of a domestic violence story emerges, South Africans, black and white, are being forced to respond to Mr. Pistorius’s story with greater caution and less haste.

A long trial looms, but there are some accepted truths. Mr. Pistorius has admitted to killing Ms. Steenkamp but has stuck by his claim that he thought he was shooting a burglar. The defense team claims that crime is so rife that Mr. Pistorius had feared for his life several times and that he reasonably thought that the noises from the bathroom were those of a criminal. The government insists that this story is incompatible with forensic evidence at the scene and with witness reports of screaming and fighting before the killing.

It is possible that Mr. Pistorius’s defense will hold up in court, but the broad outline of the case is numbingly familiar to South Africans of all backgrounds. Mr. Pistorius, it has become clear, is obsessed with guns and deeply paranoid about crime, has a short temper and has fired a gun in public — at a restaurant, reportedly by accident. According to a spokeswoman for the South African Police Service, episodes of “a domestic nature” had previously been reported at his home.

Violence against women and girls is rampant here. Just two weeks before Ms. Steenkamp was shot, South Africa woke up to news of the death of 17-year-old Anene Booysen, a poor black girl who had been raped, disemboweled and left to die on a construction site in a small town on the country’s south coast. Experts say that a woman is raped every four seconds in South Africa. Many die at the hands of partners, siblings and friends. The gruesome rape and murder of the 17-year-old Ms. Booysen, a foster child, was framed by some, including the editor of a major newspaper, as a story of what happens when poverty and absent biological parents reduce one’s chances of living a flourishing life.

But the Pistorius case tells us that brutal violence against women is an equal-opportunity affliction in South Africa; it has no respect for whether its victims are rich or poor, black or white, suburban or rural. Our society is drenched in violence. A woman is safe in neither a shack nor a mansion.

Being disabled or athletically gifted seemingly did not preclude Mr. Pistorius from being like countless other South African men — aggressive and possessed of a sense of entitlement in his relationships with women.

And that is the real story. Mr. Pistorius, it would seem, is actually more typically South African than the exceptional story of his life might suggest.


Eusebius McKaiser, a host on Talk Radio 702 and an associate at the Center for Ethics, University of the Witwatersrand, is the author of “A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics.”

See online: Cry, the Misogynistic Country