What is the shooting case of Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius really about? First, it’s about sport, celebrity, and money. It’s hard to explain otherwise how he was granted bail when he admitted that he blazed away at his bathroom door, killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
Secondly, it’s about sexism. South Africa is suffering an epidemic of sexual violence. A survey of women in Gauteng, the country’s economic hub, revealed that a quarter had been raped.
The furore about Pistorius has eclipsed the appalling gang rape and murder of 17 year old Anene Booysen in the Western Cape at the beginning of February.
But, thirdly, it’s about post-apartheid South Africa, a country that is “contradictory, complex and, yes, violent”, as journalist Niren Tolsi put it in Johannesburg’s Mail & Guardian.
One thing that stands out about the case is that all the protagonists—Pistorius, Steenkamp, the hapless investigating detective Hilton Botha, even Pistorius’s pastor Bert Pretorius—are Afrikaans-speaking whites.
In the apartheid era, when the National Party (NP) ruled South Africa (1948-1994), the Afrikaners were the most powerful ethnic group. English-speaking whites might dominate the economy, but the NP sought to institutionalise Afrikaner political and ideological domination.
It was a decision to make Afrikaans the main language in schools that provoked the Soweto uprising of 16 June 1976. This began the cycle of struggles that broke apartheid.
Soweto Day is now a national holiday. But, although black people have full political citizenship and the African National Congress has supplanted the NP as the unchallenged ruling party, much hasn’t changed.
South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Unemployment is higher than it was under apartheid. With the exception of the upliftment of a small black business elite and middle class, the economic divide between rich and poor remains a racial one.
And the Afrikaners are still there—politically much less powerful and resentful that they face more economic competition from educated blacks.
Race, poverty, and violence remain an explosive cocktail. Fear of crime is endemic among white South Africans. Their suburbs boast high fences and are protected by private security forces promising “Armed Response”.
Despite living in a closely guarded gated community, Pistorius was obsessed with guns. In this he is entirely typical. South Africa society is permeated with firearms. South African airports still have desks where passengers hand in their guns and collect them on arrival. Detective Botha was taken off the Pistorius case after it emerged he had been charged with attempted murder for firing at a taxi with seven—almost certainly black—passengers.
Pistorius’s father Henke told the Daily Telegraph, “When you wake up in the middle of the night, and crime is so endemic in South Africa, what do you do if somebody is in the house? Do you think it’s one of your family? Of course you don’t.”
Tolsi commented that a recent report on violence in the policing areas with highest murder rates “found that more than 90 percent of the murder victims were black Africans in all of these areas, except one, where the percentage of black Africans killed was lower (51 percent), but still the leader, among race groups.”
Whatever really happened in the Pistorius home in the early hours of St Valentine’s Day, one force at play is the racial paranoia that is fed by the deep fracture in South African society.
There are more important expressions of this fracture—above all, the massacre of striking miners in Marikana last August. What that showed was that the brutally oppressive system of migrant labour institutionalised under apartheid continues to sustain the minerals-energy complex driving South African capitalism.
The hearings into the massacre continue. These proceedings are getting a small fraction of the publicity that surrounded the Pistorius bail hearing. All the same that hearing bears witness to the unfinished agenda of the struggle against apartheid.