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The trial of Oscar Pistorius – Racism and Gender Violence

Thursday, 18 September 2014 – 5:00am IST Updated: Wednesday, 17 September 2014 – 8:01pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Kalim Rajab

His acquittal shows how inept South Africa is in dealing with apartheid and gender violence

It began a long time ago. In the middle of the 17th century, Dutch settlers at the Cape of Good Hope, at the southernmost tip of Africa, viewed their new-found terrain with imperial pride but the native Khoisan people with an imperial superiority. The tip itself — modern-day Cape Town — was seen as plum; the locals of deepest, dark Africa which stretched beyond it, restless and menacing. So the new masters contrived to control fate by erecting a natural barrier across the entire peninsula — a fast-growing, dense and thorny bush to keep out the unwanted black threat, die swart gevaar, as it came to be known. The choicest land and game was kept, water diverted, slaves commandeered, native women raped for occasional pleasure. From that day on, Southern Africa first came to know separation — and violence, to perpetuate that separation. About 350 years on, a small remnant of that original hedge still stands in what is today the picturesque Kirstenbosch National Gardens, gardens visited by countless Indian tourists who journey to Cape Town every year to take in the exquisite beauty. Now innocuous — so small, against the backdrop of the towering Table Mountain! — the remaining hedge is nevertheless a fragment representing in microcosm a scarred legacy which continues to haunt us South Africans as we struggle to move beyond the past.

Race, fear and violence — the triple demons of our nightmares. How different we had once hoped it would be. Twenty years ago, in 1994, South Africans felt the hand of history on us as we attempted a new social contract — an experiment to move beyond racial lines as a source of division. It was a time when “hope and history rhymed” for us, to borrow a phrase from Seamus Heaney. And in the first few decades of our new democratic order, our society earnestly sought to move beyond the crude, hierarchical racial classifications of apartheid — White, Coloured, Indian, Black. We were imbued with a hope of fostering a permanent sense of nationhood in a race- and violence-scarred country. At several points in our journey thus far, a new dawn of racial tolerance, peace and social integration seemed imminent. Yet, despite having so many things going it, as the recently concluded and globally followed Oscar Pistorius trial has thrown into sharp relief, South Africa remains on multiple levels a corrosively racialised, distrustful and violent society. The hedge seems to live on, in our suburbs, and in our hearts.

To many South Africans, particularly those of colour, Oscar Pistorius emerged from the trial as a symbol of much that we had attempted to move beyond when apartheid fell. Along with the motley crew of self-obsessed sybarites who accompanied him, he represented a brash, privileged — and white — elite who increasingly live their lives cocooned from the rest of black society through their wealth, insensitive to the needs of this starkly unequal country. One of the ironies of the post-apartheid settlement has been that whites have arguably benefited more than non-whites — on the one hand freed from existential guilt, yet on the other as continued beneficiaries of privilege their income levels have increased the fastest. And as a recipient of this privilege, Oscar is seen as someone who could flagrantly flout the law both before, during, and after, his criminal act.

One of the lesser reported episodes from the trial had to do with an incident in 2010 where he, along with his white companions, had been pulled over to the side of the road for reckless speeding by a black policeman. Seeing Pistorius’ gun dangerously lying unholstered on the back seat, the policeman rebuked him and emptied the magazine. Despite being in violation of strict laws governing how firearms are meant to be carried in public, Pistorius’ only thought was one of intense irritation that a black policeman had handled his firearm. A large outburst followed.

It was an astonishing act of contempt, all the more extraordinary because his connections allowed him to escape any prosecution. The episode reveals a distasteful side of privileged white South African society — those disdainful of black authority, who refuse to acknowledge their transgression and take responsibility for it, but who instead feel only a sense of aggrievement for having their activities curtailed.

Beyond white disdain, the Oscar trial was also a touchstone for the violence ripping through the fabric of the country. Four days before she violently died, Reeva Steenkamp tweeted a message about violence against women in South Africa. “I woke up in a happy safe home this morning. Not everyone did. Speak out against the rape of individuals.”

Everybody knows about the violence — South Africa having the 10th highest murder rate in the world, Johannesburg living up to the cliché of being the crime capital of the world. But beyond that, it is gender-based violence which remains a scourge in the country, as Reeva knew. A rape occurs every 30 seconds, usually by a family member or someone known to the family — leading to a number of over a million annually. Most victims are underage. More than 1,000 women are killed by an intimate partner each year. These are mind-numbing statistics, and South Africans have become inured to them. As much as the Oscar trial was a trial showcasing the high levels of fear and violent crime generally prevalent in the country, its poignancy was that the violence more specifically reinforced the gender-based nature of crime in South Africa.

According to a 2009 Medical Research Council study, the great majority of female murders go unpunished, with fewer than 38% of those intimate partners I’ve mentioned being successfully prosecuted. Consequently, the gender unit Sonke Gender Justice believes that far too many men feel they can commit violence with impunity, and even get away with murder. And Pistorius’ being found not guilty of murder tends to reinforce such beliefs, according to gender activists.

Ultimately, Judge Masipa’s verdict hardly helped either. In finding Pistorius guilty only of the lesser crime of culpable homicide, she seemed to be condoning a society where fear and distrust have become so prevalent that citizens shoot first and ask questions later – and courts of law accept this. Such pronouncements will hardly help our society become a less corrosive or divided one.

Apartheid literally means separation. 20 years after Mandela freed South Africans, Oscar Pistorius has proved that the Rainbow Nation still remains a profoundly separated one. )

The author is a columnist for South Africa’s Daily Maverick newspaper

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