South Africa is captivated by the Oscar Pistorius murder case. But it should also be examining its predisposition to violence towards women and culture of fear. Qawe Mbalu, a Cape Town-born Australian designer, writes from Pretoria.
In the week prior to Reeva Steenkamp’s death and the subsequent murder charges against Oscar Pistorius, gender activism and anti-rape campaigning were at fever pitch in South Africa.
Reeling from the brutal gang rape, disembowelment and death of teenager Anene Booysen, South Africa found itself yet again taking a hard look at its alarmingly high rate of violence and brutality against women.
The death of Steenkamp, herself an anti-gender violence advocate, could have furthered these discussions and underscored the gravity of these abuses. But her death and Pistorius’ arrest instead incited gun control debates and fuelled a media circus that reveals polarities in how South Africans respond to violent crimes and their (alleged) perpetrators.
The case been likened by some as a South African version of the OJ Simpson case. As a nationally celebrated, wealthy white man, Pistorius presents as a marked departure from the image South Africans tend to have of violent offenders and/or spousal abusers.
There has been a considerable amount of public sympathy for Pistorius, much unlike the condemnation that often accompanies allegations of domestic violence or murder in South Africa.
This is a sentiment that is certainly prevalent in his hometown of Pretoria, a usually quiet and relatively safe city by South African standards. It’s t Canberra of South Africa, since it also serves as the country’s administrative capital. Even in the face of mounting evidence — including previous reports of domestic disturbances — there is a reluctance on the part of the public to turn to rage. Instead the sentiment is one of concern as people attempt to make sense of the circumstances surrounding Steenkamp’s death.
One can’t deny this response is due, at least in part, to Pistorius’ profile. But it’s hard to ignore the implications his race and social standing may be having on our inclination to not only want to “understand”, but perhaps also to excuse his actions.
Serving as a prime example of the role class, or the perception of class, plays in how some South Africans perceive violence or at least “make sense” of it, is an editor’s note written in the wake of Anene Booysen’s r-pe and murder. Booysen was a fostered orphan who had grown up in a largely working-class town, and in the column, the editor of national South African newspaper City Press pondered whether Booysen’s upbringing was to blame for what happened to her. Perhaps in a family with “firm guiding hands of loving, doting, focused parents”, the editor wrote, maybe one akin to her own where in her teenage years strict curfews and rules were set to make sure she did not “go wild”.
The piece also highlighted the all-too-common culture of victim blaming and shaming. Too often accountability is placed on the victims of gender-based crime.
The rate of violence in South Africa — against women or otherwise — is rooted in a patriarchal culture and a violent DNA that permeates across the country’s racial and class divisions.
Something is very much amiss in South Africa, and the problem is inherent in a defective and traumatised society. This predisposition to violence is also at the root of a culture of fear that has for many South Africans necessitated the bearing of arms. In a country where knives account for a considerably higher number of deaths, just how effective would gun control really be in curbing violence?
Whatever measures are put in place need to acknowledge and address a far deeper issue in the South African psyche.