South Africa stood still. Now it must act on violence

Reeva Steenkamp's untimely death could prove instrumental in forcing both the South African government and its citizens to tackle domestic violence

Pistorious cries in court
Emily Boulter
On 18 February 2013 11:08

It’s difficult to fully come to terms with the shocking and bewildering story of Oscar Pistorius and the killing of his stunning new girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. South Africa’s ‘golden boy’ is accused of a gruesome murder, in circumstances that seem to become more unsettling as the days go by.

Yet there is something about this country, which often seems to unleash the very worst in human behaviour. It is truly a land of contradictions: unimaginable beauty and savagery seem to exist in tandem.

As a young child growing up in Johannesburg, I remember hearing many stories of domestic abuse: daddies beating mummies, mummies concealing bruises beneath their aerobics gear, and even ghastly tales of white teenage boys in middle class suburbs executing their parents for no apparent reason.

Even Charlize Theron, South Africa’s most famous actress, has an intimate understanding of domestic violence, since her mother killed her father in an act of self-defence, after he drunkenly pulled a gun on the pair.

Three years ago, a South African advertising firm produced an experiment featuring a taped recording of a rowing couple in a suburban Johannesburg home, played on a loud speaker. They waited to see how many neighbours would be prepared to intrude, and come to the aid of the distressed woman. Previously they had played loud music, which caused many neighbours to complain. But not a soul came to intervene to save a woman who sounded clearly in distress.

The commercial ended with the sobering figure that every year “1400 women are killed by their partners”.

This is a country in which more than one in three men have admitted to raping a woman, and the shocking statistics compiled in 2010 by the South African government-funded Medical Research Foundation found that many admitted to doing it out of a sense of sexual entitlement. Some even admitted not feeling guilty. In 2010, at least 68,000 sexual offences were registered by South Africa’s police service. Many more go unreported.

In South Africa, aggression and machismo seem like supplements men take on a daily basis; being tough is seen as required to cope in a society with high unemployment, rampant crime and a 50-a-day murder rate. Women often bare the brunt of their partner’s latent stress and this is not helped with the inclination of many South Africans to keep firearms at home.

According to Lulu Xingwana, the country’s Minister for Women, Children and People with Disabilities, women are three times more likely to die violently if there is a gun in the house.

The case of Oscar Pistorius has simply brought to the fore the reality of a problem that has existed for years, and a problem that exists across the country’s socio-economic divide. Writing in the Guardian, Alex Duval Smith notes the “profoundly macho culture he [Pistorius] grew up in spans racial groups and provides some explanation for the country's shocking rates of domestic violence”.

Indeed, resorting to violence has become a default button for many South African men, and the assertion made by some of Pistorius’s family members that the athlete acted on “instinct”, supposedly to fend off an ‘intruder’ might seem plausible, if the circumstances didn’t indicate otherwise. If Pistorius did kill Steenkamp in a fit of blind rage, then it would be in keeping with the country’s horrendous statistics.

The need to address the problem of violence against women has been acknowledged by the South African government. It was supportive of the 16 Days of Activism campaign, which works for the elimination of all forms of violence against women. Last November, it sought to focus on support for the victims of abuse and violence and work towards women’s empowerment.

Reeva Steenkamp is also reported to have been a fierce advocate for women’s rights. What is even more heart-rending is that on the day she died, she had planned to give a speech to high school children in Johannesburg about coping in an abusive relationship.

Nevertheless, her untimely death could prove instrumental in forcing both the South African government and its citizens to tackle domestic violence with new vigour and understanding. Although no one could have foreseen that it would take the downfall of an Olympic gold medallist to do so. 

Emily Boulter works as a foreign affairs researcher in Brussels

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