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Not black or white

A misogynistic country


NOT BLACK OR WHITE: The Pistorius narrative goes beyond racial lines

The Pistorius case shows violence against women is an equal-opportunity affliction in South Africa

It is a tragic truism that South Africa is one of the world's most violent countries outside of war zones. And for all of its international headlines, the Valentine's Day shooting of the model Reeva Steenkamp by the prosthetic-legged Olympic hero Oscar Pistorius is ultimately a very South African story. 

Pistorius's charm, beauty, talent and refusal to live a marginal life as a disabled person made him a marketer's dream. And for a fragile South Africa, he was a symbol of the country's obsession with overcoming obstacles. Pistorius's personal story reminded us of the country's miraculous tale of deliverance from apartheid to freedom. 

It is often assumed that widespread poverty, an official unemployment rate of over 25 per cent and deep inequality are the drivers behind violence in South Africa. But the Pistorius case shows that violent crime is not limited to the poor or committed only by impoverished blacks against wealthy whites. 

Initially, responses to news of Pistorius's arrest seemed to fall along South Africa's familiar racial fault lines. Comments from some whites on news Web sites indicated widespread acceptance of Pistorius's claim that he mistook his girlfriend for an intruder and an easy identification with the fear that would lead to reflexively grabbing and firing a gun lest a black criminal be lurking behind the bathroom door. They blamed the black-led government's inability to effectively address the country's crime epidemic for the "tragedy". The implication was clear: but for black leaders' incompetence in assuring public safety, Reeva might still be alive. 

Meanwhile, some black callers to my radio show were quick to pass judgement on Pistorius. They reminded me that the media talks liberally about accusations against black leaders, like the billionaire Tokyo Sexwale, who is alleged to have abused his wife. Their impulse to judge Pistorius hastily is driven in part by the desire to prove that a white man is as capable of wrongdoing as a black one. 

But as the narrative in court becomes more complex, and the possibility of a domestic violence story emerges, South Africans, black and white, are being forced to respond to Pistorius's story with greater caution and less haste. 

A long trial looms, but there are some accepted truths. Pistorius has admitted to killing Steenkamp but has stuck by his claim that he thought he was shooting a burglar. It is possible that Pistorius's defense will hold up in court, but the broad outline of the case is numbingly familiar to South Africans of all backgrounds. Pistorius, it has become clear, is obsessed with guns and deeply paranoid about crime, has a short temper and has fired a gun in public - at a restaurant, reportedly by accident. According to a spokeswoman for the police, episodes of "a domestic nature" had previously been reported at his home. 

Violence against women and girls is rampant here. Just two weeks before Steenkamp was shot, South Africa woke up to news of the death of 17-year-old Anene Booysen, a poor black girl who had been raped, disemboweled and left to die on a construction site in a small town on the country's south coast. Experts say that a woman is raped every four seconds in South Africa. Many die at the hands of partners, siblings and friends. The gruesome rape and murder of the 17-year-old Anene, a foster child, was framed by some as a story of what happens when poverty and absent biological parents reduce one's chances of living a flourishing life. 

But the Pistorius case tells us that brutal violence against women is an equal-opportunity affliction in South Africa. Our society is drenched in violence. A woman is safe in neither a shack nor a mansion. 

Being disabled or athletically gifted seemingly did not preclude Pistorius from being like countless other South African men - aggressive and possessed of a sense of entitlement in his relationships with women. 

And that is the real story. Mr. Pistorius, it would seem, is actually more typically South African than the exceptional story of his life might suggest. 

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