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Opinion: Oscar Pistorious killing his girlfriend implicates racist, sexist culture

By Chris Kempf
On March 15, 2013

Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee South African sprinter, is charged with murder in the February 14 death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, who died from three gunshot wounds in the bathroom of Pistorius' home. Prosecutors have accused him of a crime of passion, acting angrily and impulsively out of some inscrutable jealousy toward his girlfriend of four months. Such a story makes for great tabloid news, to the point that many wish the police's account of events to be true and for Pistorius to have cowardly shirked responsibility for his murder by appealing to the need for self-defense. But I believe Pistorius' version of the death of Reeva Steenkamp to be more compelling in light of his personal history as a South African, subject to its politics, culture and atmosphere of racial conflict. If true, Pistorius' irrational self-defense nonetheless does little to vindicate him and implicates the whole of South African society as a contributing factor in his girlfriend's death. Oscar Pistorius may have fired the gun, to be sure, but a culture of racism and violence placed that gun in his hand and directed his aim.
It should not be lost on any person familiar with Pistorius' rise to Olympic glory and sudden fall that he is white. The internationally-recognizable face of South Africa's Olympic team in London last year was Pistorius,' a white Afrikaaner competing on behalf of a country whose citizens are overwhelmingly black Africans. This is not to disqualify him from representing his country in a track and field contest because of his minority race, but it demonstrates how a country, nominally unified for two weeks in August, can be internally riven by difference in terms of race, language and culture. The same flag flies over the heads of white and black South African athletes when they win Olympic medals, but they lead dramatically different lives when they return home.
Apartheid has been erased from the South African legal system, and oppressor and oppressed have been formally reconciled. But the races, nonetheless, remain very much apart. Despite almost 20 years of governance by the African National Congress, initially led by Nelson Mandela, the economic and social capital of South African society is largely held by whites. Oscar Pistorius' black countrymen are far more likely to live in substandard housing, be unemployed or fall victim to violent crime than he. In particular, crime is seen throughout South Africa as being a particularly acute social disease. But though the burden of violence is overwhelmingly borne by poor blacks who are both its perpetrators and victims, such an atmosphere of almost irrepressible unrest is deeply troubling to a white population that feels its influence over a multiracial society and its resources slipping away.
Furthermore, South African writer Niren Tolsi remarks that "Pistorius talked of being "acutely aware" of crime. Of the fear of "violent crime being committed by intruders" in his home - a post-apartheid narrative, consistently told by white South Africans." Whites - Pistorius included - ensconce themselves in gated communities, spaces protected from the intrusion of squalor and blackness by closed-circuit TV cameras and high walls and fences. But whites feel surrounded, beset on all sides by violence and racial redistribution. The fears that walls and cameras are designed to allay are instead heightened by them and transmuted into irrational paranoias of emasculation. Thus before the murder of his girlfriend, Pistorius slept within reach of both a gun and a cricket bat in his gated community and combated insomnia at the shooting range. Last November, he tweeted about going into "full combat recon mode" upon mistaking the rumble of his washing machine for an intruder.
Unless some evidence can be uncovered to substantiate the prosecution's charge of the premeditated murder of Reena Steenkamp, the following is, I think, a more likely version of events: Pistorius is roused from sleep late at night by the sound of his girlfriend attending to herself in the bathroom. In his semi-conscious state, he may not remember this, or believe Reena to be elsewhere in the house. His subconscious fear has just been realized - the noise coming from the bathroom confirms that there is an intruder threatening the sanctity of his home. He slips into "full combat recon mode," grabs his gun and fires into the bathroom, realizing only with great horror after the fact that the "intruder" was merely a projection of his paranoid mind.
I think, therefore, that Pistorius may be telling the truth about the incident of February 14. But for his story to make sense with respect to South African race relations, Pistorius must have perceived of the intruder in his home as a black man. If this is true, Pistorius would not be guilty of premeditated murder but rather a victim of South Africa's continuing racial tragedy.


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