Oscar Pistorius: shooting to kill

Can a white man be morally absolved if it is decided that he meant to shoot an ‘imaginary black intruder’ rather than his girlfriend? Apartheid and patriarchy underpin Pistorius' trial. Part one. Part two. Part three.

Che Ramsden
6 July 2016

This is the first article in a three-part series by Ché Ramsden exploring feminist issues surrounding the Pistorius trial, how they intersect and their implications in a South African context. Read part two. Read part three. The series was first published at the time of the original trial, and is republished here as Pistorius is sentenced to six years in prison for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp following the prosecution's appeal to the Supreme Court to re-examine the first verdict in which Pistorius was found guilty of manslaughter.

In 2012, amputee sprinter and Paralympic gold medallist Oscar Pistorius made history by competing at the Olympics. Six months later he was dominating headlines again following his arrest for shooting his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, who died at the athlete’s home on Valentine’s Day 2013. The state prosecution and Pistorius’s defence lawyers spent a year analysing evidence and constructing cases which have been presented over the past three weeks in a murder trial with unprecedented media coverage (which prompted a trial of its own before Pistorius’s trial began).

A morbid public fascination with the trial has it functioning as a reality show in part, with cameras installed into the courtroom to allow for television broadcast alongside constant live audio broadcast, and the gallery satiated with technology-armed press. Pistorius, of course, was a celebrity prior to the start of the trial, hence some of the fascination which focuses on an OJ-style suspense story: will the famous athlete, seemingly against all the evidence, be cleared of murdering his partner? Pistorius has admitted killing Steenkamp, but claims that she was not his intended target.

Rather, Margie Orford locates an ‘imaginary black stranger’ at the heart of the defence case, which has positioned itself so that the trial hinges on whether or not it is ‘reasonable’ to have suspected an intruder assumed capable of such violence that it is, in turn, reasonable to shoot through a closed door at close range in self-defence. The prosecution, on the other hand, argues that Pistorius deliberately killed his girlfriend in an act of domestic violence. Yet in both depictions of Pistorius, he is capable of shooting to kill; I would argue that this places him within a context of violence perpetrated by the socially powerful, and links the cases of the prosecutors and his defence.

The case of the invisible intruder

Crime is high in South Africa. Though you are at more personal risk from someone you know, there were 16,766 reported break-ins in 2012 and, according to the South African Police Service, residential burglary increased by over 3% from 2012-13. As a result, middle-class South Africans sleep beside panic buttons, lock car doors before driving out of the garage, skip red lights at night, and live behind security sensors, burglar bars, spiked high gates, with outside walls advertising alarm systems to deter would-be intruders. 4% of South Africans legally keep guns in the house. (And the problem with guns in the home – legal or not – is that that gun-related killing or injury is more likely than if there were no gun in the house.) Pistorius’s defence is believable because the ‘imaginary black intruder’ is, indeed, at the centre of the middle-class South African imagination – the crime rate is high, and so is the fear.

Pistorius lived in the midst of a high-security estate which had no history of robbery, although ironically the motivation to live in these complexes is excessive and continued fear of one. It is telling that his neighbours’ instinct was to telephone  the security company, worried about their own house being invaded by the intruder they assumed to be attacking their neighbours, rather than telephoning the police to report a suspected crime next door. In this context, a man who might assume his girlfriend has been abducted rather than suspecting she has taken herself to the bathroom, someone too afraid to make a sound before shooting in case he is shot first, become believable scenarios. A trigger-happy tragedy is a credible result of the incessant fear which drives people to barricade themselves in and seemingly value their property more highly than human life, on the assumption that some intruder also values their property more than their lives. This is what makes Oscar Pistorius’s defence so frightening: to those of us who witness (and partake in) middle-class South African paranoia, it is plausible.

South Africa is notorious for its high crime rate. Yet amidst the fear surrounding the imagined intruder, we are at risk of ignoring the fact that women are more at risk from the men they do know – particularly their partners. Imaginary foes are not the threat; domestic violence is a very real and widespread phenomenon and, statistically speaking, a ‘reasonable’ explanation for Reeva Steenkamp’s death.

We need to talk about domestic violence

With at least 60,000 women and children victims of domestic violence every month, the World Health Organisation reports that South Africa has the highest incidence of domestic violence in the world. According to 2009 statistics, every 8 hours in an act of ‘intimate femicide’ an ordinary South African woman is killed by her partner; in 17.4% of these cases her death is gun-related.

Despite its name (and Reeva Steenkamp’s location when she was killed), domestic violence is not exclusively something which takes place behind the closed doors of a family home. It is, however, an issue we confine to the ‘domestic’ sphere; that is, the private realm of the family, where issues are ‘personal’ and not public or political. Therein lies our downfall. Up to 61% of women in South Africa under the age of 50 report surviving physical abuse by an intimate partner during their lifetime. This is over a quarter of the entire under-50 population, and must be a matter of public concern. Yet despite the Domestic Violence Act, of the small proportion of cases which are reported, in an even smaller proportion is there a conviction, as highlighted by People Opposing Women Abuse.

Members of the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) have been present at Pistorius’s trial and sitting with Reeva Steenkamp’s mother, June, when she attends. It is a powerful image, to see them standing in solidarity with June Steenkamp: while there is uncertainty about what the verdict will be, she is a grieving woman who has lost her daughter, and the Women’s League representatives alongside her are a reminder that her personal tragedy is, tragically, not unique. The ANCWL demonstrated outside Pistorius’s bail hearing last year, protesting the prevalence of domestic violence and the athlete’s seemingly special treatment, which has given his case an aura which wrongly sets it apart from too many other, similar cases.

Violence against women by their male partners is a worldwide problem which does not know barriers of colour and class. The way in which that violence is reported does, however, thanks to the dark depths of colonial and apartheid consciousness and its intersection with patriarchy. As Heather McRobie has articulated, media reporting on the death of Reeva Steenkamp have focussed on the fact that she was a white law student-turned-model concerned about gender-based violence, as though this somehow makes her death more tragic. At the same time that the world’s media has become transfixed by the goings-on inside one courtroom, in the next room a case concerning a black model killed by her boyfriend is receiving very little attention by comparison. Thanks to structural racism and its intersection with patriarchy, we are doubly blind to domestic violence when black women are being harmed. Triply so when she is poor.

Silenced victims

Through its exceptional media coverage, if Pistorius’s trial can highlight something about South African society, it highlights the power structures which dominate it: that is, rich white men rule. It is Pistorius’s own testimony which will provide the only first-hand account of what happened the night his girlfriend died, and it is Oscar Pistorius who is commanding the attention of the international press.

The media reaction to the Pistorius trial shows a white man at the heart of this story, displacing his victim. We are fascinated by his fears, and will seemingly morally absolve him if it is decided that he meant to shoot a black intruder rather than his girlfriend. Even the ‘crime of passion’ narrative lets him off the hook; traditionally it is a discourse which excuses domestic violence on the grounds of temporary insanity. It has the effect of victim-blaming: if the woman had not been suspected of having an affair, for example, her partner would not have harmed her in his moment of weakness (during which he was, ironically, strong enough to kill her).

Whatever the outcome of the trial, the powerplay is not limited to South Africa, despite its particularly high rates of crime and domestic violence. In the past year, the high-profile killings of Trayvon Martin and Mark Duggan were legally justified as acts of self-defence because even unarmed black men are imagined to be capable of extreme violence. Women across the world are silent victims of domestic violence. The silencing of marginalised groups is perhaps why Paddy Power can be audacious enough to take bets on the Pistorius trial’s outcome.

Because he does not exist, the black intruder Pistorius allegedly imagined cannot testify to the validity of his illusory presence, or how dangerous he may have been had he been real. Because she is dead, the female victim Reeva Steenkamp – and three South African women daily who are silenced through death at the hands of their partners – can only speak to us through the underwhelming evidence of an autopsy. Instead, the judge must rely on the testimony of a rich white man: the most powerful voice there is.

The judge, unenviably, has to decide whether Pistorius’s defence is ‘reasonable’. As a society, if we are to have any semblance of justice or hope of it in the future, we urgently need to recognise the structural racism which continues to pervade South Africa, valuing white bodies more than black ones. It is also only reasonable to suggest that we need to start having conversations about domestic violence, in which women affected by domestic violence have a safe space to speak, and we can start preventing deaths rather than reacting to the high-profile ones.

This series was originally published in October 2014

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