Oscar Pistorius and the heart of South Africa’s violent society

It was about 3am when the noise of a car being stealthily driven down the drive awakened him from slumber. Fearing that criminals were attempting to invade, he drew his firearm and shot at the vehicle.

When Rudi “Vleis” Visagie looked inside he saw that he had shot his daughter, Marlè, in the head. She died instantly.

Marlè had been sneaking out quietly to surprise her boyfriend for his birthday.

The tragedy convulsed South Africa back in 2004. Visagie was one of South Africa’s minor celebrities, an ex-Springbok rugby player, and the story was an all-too-common and all-too-horrifying reminder that South Africa has become the place where far too few people die of old age.

“Who killed her?” asked the five-year-old daughter of an acquaintance upon being told that her granny had died. That she could have died of old age and natural causes never occurred to the little girl.

South Africa’s population is 50 million, about 16% of the United States’. Despite this – and as violent as the US is – in absolute numbers, almost as many people die in gun-related homicides in both countries. 17 people per 100,000 die by gun-fire, five times that of the US.

That isn’t even the worst of it.

It is estimated that over 40% of South African women will be raped in their lifetime and that only 1 in 9 rapes are reported. It is also estimated that 14% of perpetrators of rape are convicted in South Africa.

“I’m tired and sore,” said Anene Booysen, then she closed her eyes and, very quietly, died. She was 17.

On Friday, 8 February, Anene had been out with friends in a bar in the small Western Cape Town of Bredasdrop. Sometime in the small hours of the morning she was gang-raped.

That wasn’t all, so skip this paragraph if you are not prepared for this level of brutality. Her arms, legs and fingers were broken. Her throat was sliced open. She was disembowelled and her guts ripped out. She survived long enough to identify one of her attackers; an ex-boyfriend and close family friend.

The violence in South Africa is so overwhelming, so ubiquitous, that it takes a lot for it to make news. The death of a celebrity helps; Lucky Dube, one of the world’s most successful reggae musicians, was murdered during a hijacking as he dropped his children off at school. Just last week the CEO of Chrysler South Africa, Trent Barcroft, was shot during a robbery.

But such attacks are too common to make the news that often.

The brutality of the crimes is sometimes so appalling that it is almost unbelievable. In February 2012, a 78-year old woman, Johanna Moore, was tied up, tortured with a hot clothes iron, and then beaten to death in her home in Dullstroom, Mpumalanga.

Rich, poor, politically-connected and socially isolated: everyone is a potential victim. Neither is it clear that the political elite have much interest, or credibility, in reducing crime. The president, Jacob Zuma, has survived a rape trial and numerous charges of corruption. The previous two heads of the police are both, independently, in jail after being found guilty of corruption and racketeering.

The violence of the crime begets a nervous and easily volatile populace. Large gatherings of people protesting legitimate grievances – such as poor public services, low pay, or lack of security – can quickly become horrific tragedies.

The Marikana miner’s strike, in which 47 people were killed by police, made the international press. There have been such protests almost continuously, although with less loss of life, but people have still been killed.

It is against this context – of a terrified and defensive people – that the awful events of the morning of 14 February, when Oscar Pistorius allegedly shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, took place.

We have, at this time, insufficient facts to know what actually happened. However it works out though, a deliberate murder or a terrifying case of mistaken identity, if it weren’t for the fame of the protagonist it would just be another invisible statistic in South Africa’s ongoing struggle with anarchy.

5 replies »

  1. Horrible indeed. I’m a Twitter follower of Pistorius since he joined the London Olympics and I was awed by his spirit of determination. Now this incident is really worrying and to learn that it is just one of the many, I can’t help but feel helpless… Thank you though for opening my eyes to the hardships of Africa, may good change no matter how gradual can come out of these crimes..

    • It has been a gradual decay. Under Apartheid there were certainly gangsters and violent criminals, but they often associated themselves with political activism (or were made to appear to be so associated) and the brutality of the military state took care of that. Violence was isolated to informal settlements.

      With the end of Apartheid the various ANC arms caches were redistributed and conflicts ending in nearby Angola, Mozambique and elsewhere flooded South Africa with cheap and illegal firearms.

      Add to that an unemployment level of about 40%, with most youths being only semi-literate and going most of their lives without a job, a police-force that is alternatively corrupt, ineffective, overly-violent, and vastly overwhelmed, and you have a recipe for disaster.

      A good primer on the state of violence in South Africa, and some of its more mystical origins, is Johnny Steinberg’s The Number. It is a sad and haunting reflection on the various prison gangs and the violence they beget.