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Oscar Pistorius trial highlights racial tensions in South Africa

You might not think the trial of a white man, accused of killing his white girlfriend, would have much to do with race. But when you look at the defense’s case, it all becomes clear.

PRETORIA, South Africa — A well-known athlete, who is white, is charged with murder after shooting and killing his girlfriend, a model and reality show star who also happens to be white.

This is the case of double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius, whose high-profile trial is in its second week. Skin color would seem beside the point. But here in South Africa, where official apartheid ended only twenty years ago, an undercurrent of racial politics has emerged.

It begins with Pistorius’s defense. The 27-year-old Olympian and Paralympian claims he mistook Reeva Steenkamp for an intruder when he shot her in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year.

South Africa has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world. An armed burglar in your home is a terrifying possibility. But in a land still suffering from the myriad effects of enforced segregation, some find it hard not to hear “the old white fear of the swart gevaar,” as South African journalist and crime writer Margie Orford puts it, in Pistorius’s legal defense.

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This threat of the swart gevaar — meaning “black peril” — was used under the racist, white-minority apartheid system to excuse all measures of violence and control on South Africa’s population, Orford writes in a recent essay. Orford calls the idea of an unknown, presumed dangerous black intruder hiding in Pistorius’s bathroom the “third body” in the case.

This sort of analysis may seem like a stretch to individuals outside the country, but only last year, Afrikaans musician Steve Hofmeyr voiced a perception common in some circles that whites are being killed “like flies” by their black countrymen. 

“The figure of the threatening black stranger has driven many South Africans into fortress-like housing estates, surrounded by electric fences, armed guards and the relentless surveillance of security cameras,” Orford argues. “So, the accepted logic goes, of course a man would simply shoot.”

In fact, it is black South Africans who are more likely to be victims of violent crime. Women of all races are especially vulnerable in their own homes, but this is due to their own boyfriends or husbands, not intruders. South African women are most likely to be killed by someone they know, according to the group Gun Free SA.

In Pistorius’s account, this mysterious intruder, who had crawled through a bathroom window and hidden in the toilet cubicle, would almost certainly have died after coming under fire from the athlete’s 9mm pistol, loaded with hollow-point bullets designed to cause maximum damage.

Sandile Memela writes for the Johannesburg-based Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader website that if there had in fact been a black intruder, Pistorius would be a hero for having shot and killed him.

“You see, when some whites buy and collect guns, it is to kill two things: animals and black people,” Memela writes, adding that “as far as some gun-toting white males are concerned, sometimes there is no distinction between the two.”

This opinion riled the FW de Klerk Foundation, run by the last apartheid-era president of South Africa who shared a Nobel peace prize with Nelson Mandela.

De Klerk’s foundation released a statement Wednesday saying that Memela’s comments “portray white South Africans as unreconstructed racists who wish to kill black South Africans at the least provocation and who regard black South Africans as animals.”

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“Such wildly provocative and unfounded statements can have only one objective: the stirring up of racial animosity,” a statement from the group said.

Meanwhile, in the Pistorius trial courtroom, middle-aged black members of the African National Congress Women’s League — part of the country’s ruling party — sit almost every day with white Steenkamp family members and friends.

There are usually two or three ANC women seated among the Steenkamp supporters, and sometimes more outside the courthouse, dressed in their trademark green uniforms and wearing photos of Reeva on their lapels.

They argue that the most pressing issue here is that of violence against women — a tragedy that cuts across all races and backgrounds in South Africa. The prosecution is expected to argue that Pistorius killed Steenkamp intentionally, in a fit of rage.

Germina Maloka, 51, an ANC Women’s League member from Mamelodi township near Pretoria, said that race doesn’t determine which court case her group attends — rather, they tend to choose ones that are high profile. And there are many.

“There are lots of women who are brutally murdered. It happens every day, every week, every month,” Maloka said, before rushing off to picket a nearby prison over another case.

Reacting to the Pistorius trial, one black South African woman says that she is afraid of strange white men and has even crossed the street to avoid them.

“I do not — of course — think that white men are by their nature evil or violent,” the woman, Sisonke Msimang, writes in The Daily Maverick, a South African news website. “Yet listening to the stories about the gunplay of Oscar Pistorius and his mates this week has reminded me of how little we speak about white male violence in this country.”

Perhaps it is time to move on from the “black peril” to a new discussion around race and violence in South Africa.