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The Pistorius defence and the fear that grips white South Africa

The week has not begun well for Oscar Pistorius. Under relentless cross-examination from prosecutor Gerrie Nel, the Paralympian athlete, standing trial for shooting and killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp…

Murder trial: Oscar Pistorius after giving evidence last week. EPA/Stringer

The week has not begun well for Oscar Pistorius. Under relentless cross-examination from prosecutor Gerrie Nel, the Paralympian athlete, standing trial for shooting and killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, came across as an evasive witness.

Pistorius first told the court he had “accidentally discharged” his firearm, then he said he acted out of fear because he thought his life was in danger, and then he said he did not mean to pull the trigger. Only the second of these claims provides a plausible legal defence.

Because there was no actual threat to Pistorius' life, he cannot rely on the principle of self-defence. However, in South African law, the principle of putative self-defence may apply where the accused genuinely believed his or her life was threatened.

Where an accused is found to have genuinely believed their life was in danger and to have accordingly believed they were using reasonable means to avert an attack on themselves or their property, they may escape conviction for murder on the grounds that they lacked requisite intention.

Pistorius therefore has to convince the court that his vulnerability, as a disabled person living in South Africa, genuinely led him to believe his life was in danger from an intruder hiding behind a closed toilet door. The court must further be convinced that his response – pumping four bullets through the door – was reasonable in the circumstances.

For a person living outside South Africa, this may seem a tough ask. It may not seem remotely reasonable to shoot four “zombie-stopper” bullets into a door without having been directly threatened by an attacker and without knowing who was hiding behind it.

However, at the heart of the defence is an assumption that the high crime rate in South Africa, coupled with Pistorius’s vulnerable state as a disabled person, rendered his actions reasonable.

Oscar Pistorius shoots zombie-stopper bullets.

Life of crime

It is true that the rate of violent crime in South Africa is high. Although the murder rate has decreased substantially from 68.1 murders per 100,000 people in 1995/1996 to 30.3 per 100,000 in 2011/2012, this number remains extremely high. But statistics from different police stations also indicate that violent crime is far more rife in black townships than in the middle class areas where most white people live.

Pistorius lived in one of the many gated communities which have sprung up in response to the perceived threat of violent crime against middle class people. Often built in an identical faux-Tuscan style, houses in such communities are usually also kitted out with an elaborate alarm system, as was Pistorius'. Such communities are typically surrounded by a high wall with an electric fence on top; the entrance to the community is always strictly controlled.

It was exactly because Pistorius lived in a gated community that he could sleep with the windows of his bedroom open. That he lived in such a place therefore presents a major difficulty for the defence. Most middle-class South Africans not living in such communities perform elaborate rituals at night to lock doors and security gates, and to activate alarm systems linked to the offices of private security companies on 24-hour call in the event of the alarm being tripped.

The obsession with violent crime displayed by some middle-class white people in South Africa, usually in fearful discussions at dinner parties and on radio talk shows, has become something of a cliché. It is made fun of by comedians and those wishing to display their enthusiastic support for the so-called “new South Africa”.

Fear or racism?

This fear became prominent around the time when South Africa made the transition from white minority rule to democracy. When white South Africans express an acute fear of violent crime, it can often sound like fear of crime has become a more acceptable way for white people to express their fear of black people and of a government led by black people.

Pistorius needs to convince the court that his alleged fear of an intruder was not irrational and that his response to this alleged fear was reasonable. That is why he has alleged that he himself has on several occasions been the victim of crime.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel. EPA/Themba Hadebe/Pool

Because he lived in a relatively safe gated community, the only possible way Pistorius could plausibly claim to have been as fearful as he said he was would be to show that because of his disability he felt especially vulnerable. In effect, he is asking the court not to treat him as a reasonable able-bodied person, but as a reasonable disabled person.

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11 Comments sorted by

  1. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    The trial is on BBC News and CNN constantly as if it was an important breaking news story instead of a sad case- a very troubled person, who most people couldn't care less about. Al Jazeera fortunately largely ignores it.
    Good article though. The present tension of life in South Africa is what happens when a vast majority of the population gets no education for decades.

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  2. Martin Krsek

    It Professional

    Having lived in South Africa, admittedly not in a gated community, I find the fear hypothesis very plausible. I don't agree that this 'acute fear', as the author calls it, is a front for racism, in most cases.

    Middle class communities are subjected to a weekly stream of news reports where those resisting criminals, looking for the smallest of things of value, are often armed, and don't hesitate to use these against their victims at the slightest sign of resistance. Countless such cases of 'petty theft' thus ending up as murder incidents. The police are overwhelmed, and cannot be relied on to respond, hence the private security firms. I can understand that those living under such circumstances live in a constant fear for their lives.

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    1. Graham Bell

      Scrap-heaped War Veteran

      In reply to Martin Krsek

      I've come across similar fears among middle-class or expats in high-crime places elsewhere in the world. 9 stories up in a very secure, well-lit and well-patrolled building, we had security screens and all the rest.

      If there is any residual racism behind the fears of white South Africans living in gated communities then it would most likely be only a very minor component indeed of the serious and quite rational fear of being robbed, assaulted, raped or murdered.

      What about well-off non-white South Africans? They face exactly the same risks of becoming the victims of violent crime too. In talking about their fears, would they risk being accused of tribalism, perhaps?

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  3. StephanieDavies-Arai

    logged in via Twitter

    This is all fair enough but I am getting a bit tired of reading so many opinions about 'what Pistorius has to do to convince a jury' - as if we are all rooting for him. An analysis of the horrific figures of violence against women in South Africa, and how close Pistorius's emotive display in court matches the typical behaviour of a controlling abuser might balance this a bit in remembering that yet another woman has been killed by a partner in this country.
    Am I alone in feeling that Reeva Steencamp has been forgotten, and that the overriding factor in this trial is the issue of the appalling level of domestic abuse in South Africa, over and above the issue of security for residents of gated communities?

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    1. Graham Bell

      Scrap-heaped War Veteran

      In reply to StephanieDavies-Arai

      No Stephanie, you are not alone. Heck, I'm still wondering why the infotainment media doesn't call this tragic case 'The Reeva Steenkamp Murder'' and why they are so shy about reporting on the domestic violence situation in South Africa: its prevalence, its causes and possible ways to eliminate it. Ignoring a serious problem does not make it go away.

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  4. Suzanne Ennazus

    logged in via Facebook

    Just started reading, and in the first few paragraphs are wrong by calling the bullets zombie stoppers, as if they watched the trial, he said the bullets he used to shoot the watermelon were designed for walking in the countryside to shoot wild animals, and much more powerful then the bullets he had in his gun that shot Reeva.

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  5. Suzanne Ennazus

    logged in via Facebook

    I think the fear of crime is justified, as everybody I know who moved to Britain from S Africa say they had been attacked many times so why they moved.

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  6. Graham Bell

    Scrap-heaped War Veteran

    I dislike the way this trial is being publicized but I'm in Australia and a long way from South Africa.
    Would anyone else in this conversation kindly tell me what effect this trial and all its publicity is having on the whole of South African society - particularly on Afrikaaners, on well-off non-Whites and on the poorer sections of society?

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  7. Mike Lane

    retired computer services manager (amongst lots of other things)

    I really don't understand why the BBC appears to be obsessed with this case, to the extent that we can be kept "up-to-date" on the BBC News Channel.
    What's going on in Syria - or is that conflict "old news" now?

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  8. Graham Bell

    Scrap-heaped War Veteran

    Still wondering how this trial is being perceived throughout Afrikaanerdom as well as amongst "English" South Africans and amongst technical and managerial level of non-white South Africans too.

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  9. Graham Bell

    Scrap-heaped War Veteran

    I usually do not bother with news and gossip about the trials of celebrities .... but the Pistorius trial is very different .... because, distant or not, South Africa is strategically important to Australians and what happens in South Africa, especially abrupt political and societal changes, can affect us here.

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