Oscar Pistorius has been released from jail to serve the rest of his sentence from his uncle’s home. Joan Smith remembers Reeva Steenkamp and reflects on what this says about South Africa
Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 20 Oct 2015
It remains one of the most sensational crimes of the 21st century. Every twist and turn in the Oscar Pistorius case has been reported around the world, including his early release from prison in Pretoria last night. The Paralympic athlete has served two days short of a year of his sentence for culpable homicide, the South African equivalent of a manslaughter conviction. He was cleared of murder at his trial in 2014 and will serve the remaining four years of his sentence under house arrest.
Pistorius’s early release was bound to cause disbelief and outrage. In a country with above average levels of violence against women, it sends an appalling message about the value placed on women’s lives. The National Prosecuting Authority has already been given permission to appeal to the Supreme Court against Pistorius’s acquittal on a murder charge. The case will be heard next month.
For the moment, the athlete will stay at his uncle’s house where he faces not very onerous restrictions. He’s denied access to alcohol or firearms but he will be allowed to work and he won’t be electronically tagged. Many observers believe he has been treated much more leniently than thousands of defendants convicted of less serious offences.
The athlete’s family responded to his release by announcing that he is in poor shape and unlikely to resume his sporting career, a move that seems designed to remind the public of what he has lost during this protracted saga. It has now been dragging on for more than two and a half years, ever since he shot his girlfriend of three months at his home in Pretoria in February 2013.
She died behind the locked door of a toilet in Pistorius’s home, struck by expanding bullets which almost amputated her arm. His defence, that he mistook her for a burglar, was in the public domain before we even knew her name.
She was called Reeva Steenkamp, a fact overlooked so often in discussions of these sensational events that campaigners against violence against women began protesting on social networking sites within hours of the killing. They argued that it was bad enough that Steenkamp had lost her life without losing her identity as well; she was only 29 years old, had a successful career and could reasonably have looked forward to many decades of productive life.
The same is true of many women killed by their partners. Contrary to popular belief, such deaths are far from unusual, not just in South Africa but in this country as well. There were 26 domestic homicides in London alone in the year up to September 2015, and a third of all notifiable domestic abuse offences in the city involve violence with injury.
The Metropolitan Police recorded 145,000 domestic abuse offences in the last 12 months, a 15 per cent increase on the previous year. Karen Ingala Smith’s Counting Dead Women Project, which includes domestic and other killings, recorded 97 murders of women by men between January and September this year.
The South African police do not count domestic homicides separately, making it difficult to find up-to-date statistics. But a study by the South African Medical Research Council in 2009 reported that murders of women by intimate partners were five times the global average, a figure supported by anecdotal evidence. If Steenkamp’s identity has been largely eclipsed by the fame of her killer, many other victims remain entirely unknown except to their grieving family and friends.
This context is at the heart of the Pistorius case. Is it the story of a young woman killed in horrific circumstances by a man she trusted or that of a world-class athlete who ruined his career with a moment’s thoughtless action? At his trial, Pistorius’s defence depended on putting as much distance as possible between him and other men who have killed their female partners, something it did by focusing on the security fears of the country’s affluent middle classes.
Instead of a man with a dangerous obsession with firearms, Pistorious was portrayed as a potential victim of South Africa’s problem with violence, terrified of being attacked by intruders. Unconcerned by any loss of dignity, the athlete bolstered this impression in court, where he vomited and repeatedly broke down in tears. There was much discussion of how difficult he would find prison conditions, with the unspoken implication that it was not an appropriate punishment for someone of his fame and status.
Now he is out, not exactly a free man but able to get on with his life in a way denied to Steenkamp. Last year, there was a collective intake of breath when a judge decided that the case was a one-off and had nothing to do with domestic violence. A year on, South Africa’s reputation as a country unwilling to protect women or punish men who kill them has been confirmed.