Saturday, September 13, 2014

Margie Orford - Reeva Steenkamp was a victim of South Africa’s macho culture

Oscar Pistorius gunned down Reeva Steenkamp in the most intimate of private spaces, the bathroom. The killing was as horribly violent as it was domestic. An apparently textbook femicide in a country where hundreds of women are murdered by husbands or lovers each year.
Pistorius, charged with premeditated murder, claimed that he fired those four neatly clustered and lethal shots through the locked bathroom door because he thought there was an intruder in his house. He seemed convinced that the idea of this imaginary intruder, this mythic danger, would excuse his violent and irrational behaviour. And though he was acquitted on the murder charges, he’s been convicted of culpable homicide because of the excessive force he used.
Yes, there is crime in South Africa. Yes, it is often violent, but it is rare that it happens on the kind of secure estate on which Pistorius lived. He was tapping into the old South African fear of an armed and dangerous black man that has its origins in the paranoid thinking of the apartheid era. The discourse of racial fear was, in the democratic South Africa, quickly elided into an equally dangerous and paranoid discourse about crime. Perhaps this was the only defensive straw to clutch, but the unflinching judicial light cast on this fear during the trial revealed a great deal more.
This pathological fear of crime is not uncommon in South Africa, which has been plagued by violence – political and criminal – for decades. But in Pistorius’s case, this fear seems to have had no rational basis.
There was no threat. There had been no crime on the secure estate where Pistorius lived until he shot Steenkamp. What was this state of terror that legitimised, in his mind, the use of lethal force in a place designed like a fortress?
The trial shone a revealing light into this bland, brightly lit security estate that resembles a set from Desperate Housewives. These estates – a vast gulag of fear window-dressed with the anodyne landscaping of an imagined suburban utopia – sprawl across South Africa. Modern-day retreats that arm and defend against enemies who might not always be visible but are always there. These estates, which their residents say are necessary for their families’ survival, are a blight on the face of South Africa’s tarnished rainbow nation: privileged enclaves that represent a fantasy of safety, ringed by discreetly obscured barbed wire and electric fences set at almost lethal frequency, guarded by armed men – almost always black – who live in poor communities many kilometres away where the most basic policing rarely exists.
Steenkamp’s killing showed once more – as if we needed reminding – that home is almost always the most dangerous place for a woman. Femicide is a common crime in South Africa; hundreds of women are killed by their partners each year. Almost none of them makes it to the front page. Pistorius’s success and his fall, his celebrity, turned the spotlight away from Steenkamp’s corpse, the gruesome detritus that was evidence of an uncontained male rage (or fear), and on to her killer sitting in the dock.
Pistorius was not guilty of femicide, the terminal point of domestic violence. But what we saw in the Pistorius trial is how this heedless, hidden violence manifests itself. South African women and their children are all too often the collateral damage in a seemingly endless cycle of male violence that did not end with apartheid. South Africa was defined by casual everyday social violence that was not a byproduct of apartheid, but its defining feature – and it has endured and thrived in the two decades since.
This is not to blame apartheid for Pistorius’s actions. It is a way of pointing out that the bullying, the brutality, the heedlessness, remains with us, alive and present and deadly. This violence ranges from the vicious gang warfare that plagues many poor townships, to the shocking levels of drink-driving fatalities, to the negligent use of firearms.
Pistorius was unpleasant to watch on the stand. He failed to accept any responsibility for his actions. The whimpering, vomiting spectacle he presented sat uneasily with the stature he had reached as an Olympic champion who had succeeded against all odds. The additional gun conviction against him showed the reckless and macho behaviour that is chillingly familiar to all of us who live here. It was not difficult for the prosecution to build a picture of Pistorius – once the iconic “Blade Runner” – as a narcissistic, controlling and selfish man whose love of guns, fast cars and risk overrode any consideration for the safety of others.
This aggressively swaggering masculinity is one that colours our social and political landscape. It is – as Steenkamp learned by making that fatal female error of being in the wrong place at the wrong time – pervasive, toxic and lethal.