By Kaavya Nair
Edited by Namrata Caleb, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
The murder of Reeva Steenkamp by her boyfriend and famous paraolympic athlete Oscar Pistorious on the Valentine’s Day of 2013 is one of the most followed criminal cases across the world in recent times. The case bought into limelight several questions regarding safety of women and the notion of violence in South Africa.
Steenkamp had been dating Pistorius only since November of 2012, merely few months into her relationship with Pistorious before she was brutally shot dead. However brief their life together, it revealed the glamorous life of the white South African elite. In many ways, the end of apartheid 19 years ago, and the crippling sanctions that died with it, made their lives better. Incomes rose, guilt fell. But beyond, there was also the killer’s defense: that Steenkamp was the tragic victim of a racially splintered society in which fear and distrust are so pervasive that citizens shoot first and ask questions later. And then there was the murder scene itself, a locked bathroom within a fortified mansion in an elite enclave surrounded by barbed wire, in a country where more than half the population earns less than $65 (US) a month and killings are now so common that they reach the highest echelons of society and celebrity. Why is violence so prevalent in South Africa?
In 2011 the U.N. Office for Drugs and Crime found that South Africa had the 10th highest murder rate in the world. But what really distinguishes South Africa from its peers in this league of violence is not how the violence rises with inequality nor its sexual nature–both typical of places with high crime–but its pervasiveness and persistence. The failure of the state to ensure that violence is curbed, is one of the main reasons for its persistence in the society of South Africa, highlighted internationally with the Steenkamp incident. Scandals involving government ministers seem like a weekly occurrence. About a tenth of South Africa’s annual GDP–as much as $50 billion–is estimated to be lost to graft and crime. The initial lead investigator in Pistorius’ case, Detective Warrant Officer Hilton Botha, was removed after it emerged that he faced trial on seven counts of attempted murder. The past two national police chiefs were sacked for corruption.
Unable to rely on the state, South Africans are forced to cope with crime essentially on their own–and over time, that has shaped the nation. Pistorius was the latest incarnation of South African hope. In a long battle with other athletes and sporting authorities, who argued that his prosthetics’ gave him an unfair advantage, he demanded to be treated like any other athlete–and succeeded as few ever had. With Pistorius’ arrest for Steenkamp’s murder, South Africa’s dreams collided with its reality. Pistorius doesn’t dispute that he killed Steenkamp. Rather he contends his action was reasonable in the circumstances. In his affidavit, he said he was “acutely aware” of South Africa’s violent crime. “I have received death threats before. I have also been a victim of violence and of burglaries before. For that reason I kept my firearm, a 9-mm Parabellum, underneath my bed when I went to bed at night.” By Pistorius’ account, his fear of an intruder, the fear that keeps the people of South Africa apart still, caused the man so many saw as a unifying figure, to shoot his girlfriend dead.
It takes a collective effort to stop a country from falling apart. Fragmented and behind their barricades, individual South Africans just get to watch. Just another South African story was the weary headline over a picture of Pistorius and Steenkamp. There is a moral to these South African stories. A nation whose racial reconciliation is even today hailed as an example to the world is, in reality, ever more dangerously splintered by crime. And inside this national disintegration, however small and well-defended South Africans make their brew, it’s never enough. Father rapes daughter. Mother poisons sons. Icon shoots cover girl.
Kaavya Nair is a currently a second year Political Science major at Miranda House, University of Delhi. She is passionate about liberal arts and obsessed about issues of International significance. An avid debater and a passionate writer she strongly believes that a dedicated youth working together can create change for the better, and hopes to positively impact the world through her passion and dedication for words.