The Guardian, 9 June 2015
Male violence is deeply entrenched in South Africa, where three women are killed by their partners every day. Reeva Steenkamp was a victim both of one man, and of a grim culture
Reeva Steenkamp died alone and terrified. She was 29, and should have been able to look forward to many years of life. Instead, she died behind a locked toilet door that could not protect her from a man armed with a powerful weapon.
It has now been revealed that her killer, the Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, is likely to be released from prison in August this year, after serving only 10 months of a five-year sentence for culpable homicide. This turn of events, while hardly unexpected, speaks volumes about attitudes towards male violence in South Africa. That Pistorius could be released so soon also says a great deal about the capacity of celebrity to obliterate other narratives, even in a country where three women are killed each day by their husbands or boyfriends. Many observers have noted the danger posed to women by a culture where guns and masculinity are perilously entwined.
Steenkamp’s parents have condemned the decision by the parole board to release their daughter’s killer to house arrest. The fact that the athlete shot his girlfriend has never been in doubt, although Pistorius has always claimed he mistook her for a burglar in the early hours of the morning. He was cleared of murder last autumn.
Once he is moved to house arrest, Pistorius could even be allowed to start training again. It has always been clear that the relevant authorities do not regard his conviction for culpable homicide as a disqualification for an international sporting career, with the International Paralympic Committee announcing immediately after the verdict that he would be allowed to compete again, although not until 2019. There is a potential obstacle in his way, however, with the prosecution’s appeal against his acquittal on the murder charge due to be heard in November.
The case remains controversial for very good reasons. From the moment news of the killing broke in February 2013, Pistorius was given a sympathetic hearing by much of the world’s press. Long before the case came to court, reporters uncritically repeated his defence, framing the story as a piece of tragic news involving a world-famous athlete and divorcing it from any wider context.
That context is very well-known to doctors and campaigners against domestic violence. So many women are killed by their husbands and boyfriends in South Africa that the crime is regarded by some commentators as amounting to femicide – the intentional murder of women simply because they are women. Many observers have commented on the danger posed to women by a culture where guns and masculinity are perilously entwined. According to an article published in the South African Medical Journal in 2010, the country has “the highest reported rate globally of females murdered by shooting in a country not engaged in war”. Most of the victims are poor and either black or mixed race.