Oscar Pistorius and Violence in South Africa

Media are scrambling to cover the story of South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius killing his girlfriend Reeve Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day.  Stories include the latest details about the trial. Many have also mentioned that Pistorius was a bit of a gun enthusiast who was also fearful for his own safety. It sets up a story of an athlete living in a country that is characterized by violence.

Pistorius has maintained that he mistook his girlfriend for an intruder and shot her in the bathroom out of fear and in an act of self-defense. Outlets have pointed to a tweet by Pistorius in November when he thought that there was an intruder in his home.

And there are mentions of a New York Times article from early 2012 that features an anecdote where Pistorius grabbed his gun after his security alarm went off by accident one night. The author of the story then related joining Pistorius at the firing range with his 9-milimeter handgun. While facts that do relate to Pistorius’s past, some are saying that the structure of some reports are working to excuse Pistorius.

Gun Violence in South Africa

Perc Hom by Firearms in Africa

There is violence in South Africa. Much like their is violence in all parts of the world. However, some commentators are pushing back against the prevalent reporting. Journalist Geoffrey York, a resident of Johannesburg, writes in the Globe and Mail that the depiction by some outlets of South Africa does not represent the country he knows.

I’ve lived in Johannesburg, the most crime-ridden city in South Africa, for the past four years. I have dozens of friends in the city, and some have been victims of home invasions or burglaries, but none keeps a gun under the bed, let alone feels any desire to blast bullets through doors at the slightest sound.

The truth is that homicides are declining in South Africa. The rate was above 60 people per 100,000 in 1994 and dropped down to below 40 per 100,000 by 2007, says a 2011 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report. Despite the decline, firearms have persisted as roughly half of the cause of homicides over the same period. UNODC suspects that the decline is the result of social change, not a reduction in firearms.

In a closer look at crimes in Cape Town, the report shows that violent crimes, like murders and sexual assaults, occurred more frequently in areas with high unemployment and low incomes. Conversely, property crimes were more likely to take place in high income areas of the city. “This suggests that poverty and income inequality may tend to drive different patterns of crime in different urban contexts,” says the report.

Cape Town has a higher crime rate than the national average. It is possible, though not certain, that the pattern holds true in other South African cities. The report attributes the high rate of violent crimes in low-income areas to environment, health and social pressures. The home of Oscar Pistorius was located in a well off part of Pretoria. Despite the better security, his expressed concerns about intruders would make sense based on the UNODC findings.

However, given the lower violent crime rate in areas with high property crimes, it is evident that the two are not necessarily linked. In South Africa, there is a close link between gun violence and women. A 2010 study published in the South African Medical Journal found that, “guns play a significant role in violence against women in South Africa, most notably in the killing of intimate partners.”

A History of Violence 

Distribution of Homicide Victims SA

The data and research do show that there is a violent crime problem in South Africa. Similarly, the history of Pistorius illustrates a gifted athlete with a short temper. The Africa is a Country blog points to the way that Pistorius acted after finishing second in the 200m at the 2012 Paralympics.  Stories failed to connect the fact that Pistorius’s complaints about his opponent having an unfair advantage mirrored the same accusations leveled by his able-bodied opponents at the Olympics.

Ultimately, journalists excused his behavior at the Paralympics as the stuff of “real rivalry.” The hero-making rhetoric entered to re-fashion Pistorius’ ugly response as something that could advance the cause of Paralympians–it became an opportunity to review our stereotypes: we needed to see paralympians as athletes who are just as crazily competitive as ‘able-bodied’ athletes–so stop patronizing them as people who enter competitive sport just to be nice.

Then there are the previous physical altercations involving Pistorius. It was revealed in his bail hearing that he had made threats on at least two occasions. In one case, Pistorius threatened another man that he would “break his legs.” The same hearing also featured new information that multiple witnesses heard loud fighting from the Pistorius home the night of the death of Steenkamp.

To what extent are the actions of Pistorius a result of a macho culture? “White Afrikaners like Pistorius do not need to have several girlfriends. But his love of guns speaks to the same hunger to prove his masculinity in the South African context,” said Rachel Jewkes of the South African Medical Research Council in an interview with the Guardian’s Alex Duval Smith. Africa is a Country agreed writing:

Pistorius’ dependence on firearms, and the amount of confidence they seemed to impart to him was as indicative of the level of hyper-masculinity on which South African gender roles are built. And the pressure to display macho-ness could also have been exaggerated in Pistorius–his desire to display mastery over his domain, his aggression, and his special dependence on guns speaks volumes about overcompensating for a disability, of which he was not permitted to speak or allowed to acknowledge.

What do we Know?

The brutal murder and rape of Anene Booysen in early February triggered outrage, but not near the level of what was seen in New Delhi, India after the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey. According to Lisa Vetten, an independent researcher and the former senior researcher at Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, the difference can be attributed to the fact that rape has become commonplace in South African media. However the reasons are not entirely clear.

Similarly, the Pistorius case is one that is far murkier than some are reporting. We do know about the decline in violence in South Africa, Pistorius’s avid gun ownership, his temper and the macho culture. Then there is the fact that high income homes are more likely to see property crimes. Meanwhile, there is a high proportion of murdered women by their partners with a gun.

What we don’t know right now is what happened in that home on Valentine’s Day.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.