The Oscar Pistorius case that’s gripping global media has every ingredient needed to stay boiling at the top of the headlines: violence, intrigue, beauty, scandal, sports, underdog hero worship, and more. It’s no wonder the updates keep streaming in. But the most significant layer to this story isn’t the players involved–it’s the setting itself.
As a kid, I literally sat on an abandoned book that unexpectedly introduced me to South African apartheid for the first time. It was called “Kaffir Boy” and the inhumanity suffered by the author, Mark Mathabane, darkened the deepest corridors of my mind for years to come.
I most clearly remember his description of sifting through piles of trash in search of discarded picnic baskets that might contain jam sandwiches. And then I remember he found a dead baby instead.
His description was so graphic, I threw up.
My one solace in finishing the book was the reminder that this period of turmoil was far behind South Africans.
Or so it was thought. Briefly.
More and more, people who have recently traveled to South Africa (or “escaped” it, as some have put it) tell me that their homeland is circling the drain of disastrous collapse. The more layers we peel back from the Pistorius case, the more gruesome findings we unearth–and they have nothing to do with the case itself.
First, because this case tests the argument that Pistorius mistook his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp for an intruder, it underscores the commonality of this defense among South Africans. Residents of that country are terrorized by constant crime, toting a murder rate that is four times that of the global average. It’s a problem that began small, and then snowballed wickedly fast.
“The first thing we did was to get big dogs,” one resident Nikki Schimansky told the VOA. “Then we put up security gates inside the house to close off the bedrooms. … Then we put up security lights; we got an alarm system installed connected to a security company, with a panic button. … My husband has a gun, it’s a .38 special. It is locked in the safe during the day, but at night, when we go to bed, the gun comes out and it’s with him, next to the bed.”
There are echoes of Pistorius’s justification, here.
“It really is terrifying living here. You know, we feel like prisoners in our own homes,” Schimansky concluded.
The case disturbs still more troubling elements of South African society. The victim Steenkamp herself was seemingly pursuing a role in a South African anti-rape campaign at the time of her death. The day before she was killed, she retweeted support for “Black Friday,” a collective campaign to wear black in honor of South Africa’s overwhelming number of rape victims. Violence against women is a prominent topic on the minds of many residents there, considered “out of control” in some towns and “not treated seriously” by the government.
“I woke up in a happy safe home this morning,” Steenkamp tweeted about rape violence on Feb. 10. ”Not everyone did.”
And four days later, neither did she.
Far from foreshadowing, it’s easy to see why the subject was on her mind. Only two weeks before, horrifying updates on the disembowelling death of a young black girl named Anene Booysen had stunned South Africans everywhere.
She was raped, gutted, and left to die, her cries for her mother unheard and unanswered.
Rape has reached pandemic proportions in the region, while the response has been described as “muted,” especially when compared with India’s recent rape-related riots. Yet South African police statistics tell us seven women are murdered a day, and a woman is raped every 17 seconds.
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But chronic problems in the legal infrastructure prevent any address of this growing epidemic of misogyny. “There is evidence that victims reported cases of domestic violence to police or social workers,” the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) on Violence against Women and Children said in a statement on AllAfrica.com, “but their pleas for help fell on deaf ears or they were told to resolve the matter with their partners.”
In light of these obstacles, Pistorious’s release from prison today only further dismayed women advocates such as the Women’s League of South Africa’s ruling ANC party.
“For now we will abide by the rules of law in this country but honestly we are saddened because women are being killed in this country,” ANC Women’s league spokeswoman Jacqui Mofokeng told Reuters.
Furthermore, South Africa has not left apartheid in the past as we had thought.
It is a nation still driven deranged by the memory of it. In fact, its haunted history has only normalized violence as a strategy, creating gated communities where the rich (and usually white) wall themselves in with guns and intensifying the racial tension that once utterly destroyed their country and threatens to do so again. Many whites in South Africa have rallied behind Pistorius, echoing his defense as reasonable, in the process citing racist complaints and pointing fingers at the “black-led government” for failing to prevent this episode.
Reality, however, is much murkier than that. Despite the common post-apartheid narrative regurgitated by white South Africans, statistics show that it is in fact the black South Africans who most often die at the hands of fatal violent crime: one study found that more than 90 percent of murder victims in five different areas were black Africans, with one exception where they only constituted 51 percent of victims.
And little has been helped by the country’s existing police force, which has been plagued by scandal and corruption at the very top. These facts reveal a system that begs for serious reform.
Consequently, the high-profile nature of this case is imperative not just because of the man at its center–himself the quintessence of the South African ideals perseverance and dedication–but because it sheds harsh light on the meek fallacy of South Africa’s “peaceful transition.”
So if you were tempted to dismiss this story as another celebrity scandal that merits none of the attention it has received, rethink this temptation. There’s so much more at stake here than the loss of a beauty queen and the valor of a fallen hero.