Feature

South Africa: A national hero accused of murder

Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee Olympic and Paralympic runner, has been arrested for the murder of his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

It’s “another South African tragedy,” said Sarah Britten in the Mail & Guardian (South Africa). Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee runner who inspired the country with his trailblazing performance last year at the Olympics and his two golds at the Paralympics, has been arrested for the murder of his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. He was “one of the few things we have going for us” at a time when the headlines are full of deadly mining protests and a gang-rape epidemic. But “now it seems we can’t have this either.” Steenkamp was locked in the bathroom when Pistorius fired four shots through the door and then broke it open with a cricket bat to retrieve her body. Even if it’s proved that the shooting was an accident—that Pistorius really did think there was an intruder in there—South Africa is tarred. “Because who shoots his girlfriend by mistake unless he lives in a country where the possibility of violent crime is ever present?”

It’s a shockingly insecure society, said Jonathan McEvoy in the Daily Mail (U.K.). The fear that a stranger is in your house at night is a thoroughly rational one: In Gauteng Province, where Pistorius lived, there are more than 7,000 reported home invasion robberies a year. While gun ownership is strictly regulated, many people do own weapons for home protection, and Pistorius had many. In his bedroom “lay one cricket bat and one baseball bat behind the door, a revolver by his bed, and a machine gun by the window.” He is reported to have applied for multiple other gun licenses as well.

“Hang on, though: I also live in South Africa, and I’m also scared of burglars,” said Peter Bruce in Business Day (South Africa). But I don’t have any guns—nor would I automatically assume that a person in the bathroom at night is an intruder, rather than a member of my family who has to pee. The truth is, South Africans were so eager to revel in Pistorius’s triumph-over-adversity narrative that we ignored the many warning signs in his background: “his petulance, his rage, the warnings from ex-girlfriends, his inability to lose gracefully.” Police said they had been called to his home in the past for disturbances.

This isn’t a tale of home invasion—it’s one of domestic violence, said Sekoetlane Jacob Phamodi in the Mail & Guardian. In South Africa, a woman is killed by her domestic partner every eight hours. Violence against women is endemic here; it is embedded in our macho culture. Many in the media seem to want to cast Pistorius as some kind of grand exception. When black men kill their girlfriends, it’s attributed to their violent culture, but in this case we’re all talking about lax gun laws and the athlete’s “dark and troubled past.” In one way, of course, this killing is different: Because the victim was a beautiful white woman and the alleged killer a national hero, “the full basket of resources in the entire value chain of the criminal justice system will be channeled into the resolution of this case.” That doesn’t happen for the thousands of other South African women murdered every year.

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