Oscar Pistorius: the South African story

The two versions of Oscar Pistorius presented by the state and the defence fit into a wider narrative of South African patriarchy, and not the other way around; solutions must therefore come from beyond the Pistorius trial.

Che Ramsden
24 November 2014

This is the second part of a three-part series by Ché Ramsden exploring feminist issues surrounding violence against women and the Pistorius trial, how they intersect, and their implications in a South African context. Read part one. Read part three.

Having shot dead his girlfriend in the early hours of Valentine’s Day 2013, Olympic and Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius was charged with murder. The last week has seen the culmination of the trial, with the heads of argument (closing arguments) presented to Judge Thokozile Masipa on the 7th and 8th August 2014 – all that remains to be heard is her verdict, which will be delivered on the 11th September. Almost serendipitously, as if to remind us that the Pistorius trial fits into a larger national narrative, the 9th August was National Women’s Day in South Africa. Originally founded to celebrate the contribution of women to the anti-apartheid struggle (9th August 1956 saw 50,000 women march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest apartheid 'pass laws'), in recent years Women’s Day has shifted its focus to the continued struggle against gender-based violence.

Members of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) in the 1950s.

Members of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) in the 1950s. Photo: UWC-Robben Island Mayibuye ArchivesFraming the narrative

The fascination with Pistorius’s case within South Africa must be understood partly as South Africa’s fascination with itself. Oscar Pistorius – or, simply, Oscar – was a familiar hero for South Africans, another home-grown icon who represented the country internationally and made us proud on a global stage. He seemed to embody the Olympic slogan ‘higher, faster, stronger’ and, mirroring the New South Africa, prove to the world our earnest belief (and common narrative arc) that out of adversity rises the extraordinary.

On Valentine’s Day 2013, my social media streams were not altogether different from what they were like when Pistorius won a race. ‘Oscar!!’ they screamed with a different, darker kind of disbelief. He had not exceeded our expectations this time, but let us down. Pistorius’s story suddenly included the nastier elements of the South African story: violence, fear, crime, and, at the heart of it, a dead woman who would quickly become buried beneath the focus on her more famous partner. For Reeva Steenkamp’s story now, too, is a South African story; it is far from uniquely South African, but a woman’s life abruptly ending at the hands of her partner is a too-common account in South Africa where 3 women a day are killed by a partner or ex-partner, albeit accounts not often heard in a court room and certainly not with the same media attention as Steenkamp’s death. In 20% of killings, a perpetrator is not even identified.

Oscar Pistorius leaving court. Photo: Frans Sello waga Machate / DemotixAs I have previously written  about the Oscar Pistorius trial, both the prosecutor’s case – that Steenkamp was murdered in an act of domestic violence – and the defence’s – that Pistorius mistook Steenkamp for an intruder and, under stress, fired the gun – are sadly believable, given the high incidence of intimate partner femicide and high fear of crime even in the safest settings. Both are narratives that South Africa is too familiar with, if not reconciled to. Both are also narratives of masculinity: one, where a man violently exerts power over his partner to the point of death; the other, where a man feels a duty to protect his territory (his home and his female partner) against another, intruding male.

Violent expressions of masculinity are global phenomena with their roots in patriarchy. South Africa, with one of the highest reported rates of gender-based violence, has seen brutal cases reported in recent years. Had Steenkamp lived, she planned to wear black in solidarity with a ‘Black Friday’ protest against gender-based violence. The ‘Black Friday’ protest was organised as something at once personal and part of a wider picture which connects millions of South African women; it was sparked by the anguishing case of gang-rape and torture of 17-year-old Anene Booysen, who identified her ex-boyfriend as one of her attackers shortly before she died of her injuries. Yet Anene Booysen’s violent death was not the first of its kind, nor the last: on 10th August 2014 to coincide with National Women’s Day, at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) 12th annual Nelson Mandela Lecture Series, activist Zethu Matebeni fiercely urged an examination of the continued violence against women to ‘continue the work of liberation’.

The verdict

Of course, the legal trial of the death of Reeva Steenkamp is vastly different from many cases of intimate partner femicide, not least because Pistorius is involved: he has attracted unprecedented media coverage for a South African trial, and he can also afford an expensive defence team.  Specially-commissioned TV channels  exist solely to broadcast the trial – after the judgement has been read these will stop broadcasting, completing the trial and, for many, the story.  

International media coverage has, in many ways, seemed to put the South African judiciary on trial. Dedicated articles explain the jury-less system and the role played by the judge’s assessors. Others focus on the options available  to the judge: to acquit Pistorius, to find him guilty of culpable homicide (manslaughter), of dolus eventualis (unintended but foreseeable murder), or of dolus directus (deliberate murder, of either Steenkamp or an intruder). The judgement will be pored over and scrutinised – and, without wanting to pre-empt the outcome, given the lack of credible third-party evidence and Masipa's record of measured judgements which empathise with disadvantage and vulnerability, it is likely to be deemed as comprehensive and fair as possible given the case.

However, this unusual trial does not resemble the struggles faced by many families seeking justice for women killed by their partners. A year after the Black Friday protests in memory of Anene Booysen, similar protests were organised for Valentine’s Day 2014, sparked by the murder of Sandiswa Mhlawuli. Her ex-boyfriend was released on bail twice despite eye-witness accounts of her stabbing. For Mhlawuli’s family, seeking justice was not only painful but absurdly slow. Legal processes designed to protect Mhlawuli and, later, her family failed them.

Reporting gender-based violence to the police can cause further trauma and victimisation for a woman or her family or friends. Additionally, the police are often seen as unprofessional and untrustworthy. Indeed, the Pistorius case has been embarrassing for the police who have stood in the way of the justice system, with evidence going missing, accusations (and pictures) of police tampering with the crime scene, and the lead investigator himself going on trial. And, according to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, in the two weeks after Steenkamp was killed, in unrelated incidents a police officer was sentenced to 15 years in prison for murdering his girlfriend; a further two officers appeared in court on rape charges and another was arrested for rape.

Changing the narrative

When the cameras are turned off and the international media fly home, the Pistorius verdict will do little to change the trajectory of South Africa, much as it has reflected an obsession with crime, violence and unhealthy masculinities which can consume the country. The two versions of Oscar Pistorius presented by the state and the defence fit into a wider narrative of South African patriarchy, and not the other way around; solutions must therefore come from beyond the Pistorius trial.

Patriarchal constructs of masculinity are harmful to men, no less so Oscar Pistorius. In his closing arguments, Pistorius’s defence lawyer Barry Roux crafted an image of a young man whose disability left him susceptible – vulnerable, even – to a ‘fight’ instinct, ultimately resulting in an unfortunate and accidental death. In a move which ought to outrage women’s rights campaigners and disability rights campaigners alike, Roux compared Pistorius to an abused woman: the ‘slow tick’ of constant anxiety meant that he finally pulled the trigger when faced perceived danger. Aside from misusing a legal framework which recognises an abused woman’s right to act in self defence, Roux’s language again highlights masculine norms by implying that anything other than an able-bodied male equals at best vulnerability (at worst abuse).

At the UCT’s Nelson Mandela Lecture Series, Mbuyiselo Botha said that the role of men in ending gender-based violence was ‘the elephant in the room’. He called on the government to invest in engaging young boys to address violence, as attitudes about ‘masculinity’ lie at the root of violence towards women. As a founding member of the South African Men’s Forum, he worked with men to promote gender equality through community-based advocacy and training. Men need to be asking themselves, he said, what their role is in ending gender violence. This year the series also hosted President Michelle Bachelet of Chile, who introduced compulsory sex and relationships education partly in an attempt to engage boys and young men in the struggle for gender equality.

Michelle Bachelet Jeria and Graca Machel at the 12th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture Series, Cape Town City Hall. Photo: GCISThe voices of strong women overwhelmed the series, a reminder that women are powerful and their voices need to be heard. Bachelet emphasised the need for long-term thinking to combat gender-based violence, for political will and large-scale national interventions. Graça Machel spoke of her confidence that 2014 would be a turning point for South Africa’s women. Zethu Matebeni urged women to be ‘enraged by the attacks on our bodies’, and to turn this rage into action.

I am reminded of the song sung by the women who marched on the Union Buildings in 1956: ‘Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo!’ (Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock).

This article was first published on oD 50.50 in September 2014 and is republished here as the South African Surpeme Court hears the appeal case.


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