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Feb 22, 2013

With Pistorius in court, South Africa examines its violent psyche

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.

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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.

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5 thoughts on “With Pistorius in court, South Africa examines its violent psyche

  1. susansan

    Is unbiassed justice being carried out or is there a gender bias that is such a hyper-object, comprehensively present everywhere, that no-one can see it anymore?

    So when the young woman concerned, an apparently warm, intelligent, thoughtful human being who days before her death protested publicly about the violent and outrageous rape and mutilation of of Anene, is described as ‘a leggy blonde’, what kind of bias is already in play in the media, softening the fact that this is a young, rich, (male) superstar with an alleged history of violence towards his girlfriends, and a man whose most recent gun order to add to his large collection was the weapon used in the mass murder of American pre-schoolers? We all know what leggy blondes let themselves in for by their sheer leggy blondeness. Meanwhile, the press in SA refer to Pistorius almost affectionately as ‘impulsive’ – boys will be boys…

    Perhaps she even deserves this treatment by the merely ‘impulsive’ Pistorius since he is tragically not leggy at all, nor even blond, and has suffered and overcome so much. The extreme violence against women throughout the world is the most disturbing ‘bias’ here to this point in the unfolding story – precisely because it is so deeply ‘naturalised’ and rendered culturally ‘invisible’.

    And it is not a ‘tragedy’ that she was killed, until or unless her death is conclusively proved to have been utterly accidental, that Pistorius genuinely thought that a (black) intruder had very likely infiltrated the security compound in which he lives and his locked bathroom as well, and was being so bold as to use his toilet at that moment.

    Rather than ‘tragedy’ it may well prove to be (‘just’) one more outrage against human beings who happen to be born female, one that should burn people’s hearts, men and women alike. One more among the millions each week, this one a relatively high-profile white woman. Most of the others will never even make the press but sink from sight without causing the slightest ripple or demur.

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