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Who is killing women in South Africa? The inconvenient truth

Pistorius trial has kept violence against women on the frontpage. Kim Ludbrook/EPA

Who is responsible for violence towards women? This question runs like a thread through some of the public discourses swirling around the trial of athlete Oscar Pistorius. In some ways he represents an inconvenient truth – that not all violence against white women in South Africa is carried out by black men.

Days after the shooting of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in February 2013, Lulu Xingwana, South Africa’s minister of women, children and people with disabilities stated on Australian television:

Young Afrikaner men are brought up in the Calvinist religion believing that they own a woman, they own a child, they own everything and therefore they can take that life because they own it.

Her comments outraged a number of groupings and, following threats by civil rights group AfriForum to bring a case of discrimination on the basis of race, faith and gender in the Equality Courts, the minister apologised unreservedly.

Just how contested white men’s violence towards white women is in South Africa became apparent again in 2013 when the Afrikaans singer and activist Sunette Bridges claimed in a Facebook post that Pistorius was the only white man to kill a white woman during the 15 months or so that she and others had been collecting news clippings. For the rest, white women met violent ends at the hands of black men.

These claims were disputed in an interview for an Afrikaans newspaper and a column written for the website Africa Check.

This led Sunette Bridges, Steve Hofmeyr and the Freedom Front Plus to lodge a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission in April of this year alleging that white men’s right to dignity was violated by these reports. I am one of those cited in the complaint.

Behind homicide numbers

So does this resistance to implicating white men in the deaths of white women have any basis?

In 1999, the Medical Research Council undertook a national study into female homicide in the country. This showed that four women were killed every day by their intimate male partners, producing an intimate female homicide rate for South Africa six times that of the global average. However, this finding was mediated by race. While the intimate female homicide rate overall was 8.8 per 100,000, the rate for white women was lower at 2.8 per 100,000. White women were also more likely to be killed by people with whom they were not intimate.

This analysis of female homicides was repeated in 2009 and found that the number of female homicides overall had declined since 1999, as was the case for homicide generally. At the peak in 1995-96 there was a prevalence rate of 62.7 per 100,000 but by 2008-9 it had had decreased by 44% to 37.3 per 100 000. As a result of this decline it was not meaningful to report on the data in terms of racial categories.

Overall, the 2009 study showed that even though the prevalence of intimate homicide had decreased from 8.8 per 100,000 women in 1999 to 5.6 per 100,000 in 2009, this decline was not statistically significant, whereas that for non-intimate partner homicide was significant. (It is likely that at least some of this decrease would also be reflected in the non-intimate homicide rates for white women.)

Because the rate of intimate homicide did not decrease as rapidly as the proportion of non-intimate homicides, intimate homicide is now the leading cause of female homicides in the country, having accounted for 50% of female homicides in 1999 but 57% in 2009. It is a rate that is also five times that of the global average.

The later study raises important questions around how this reduction in non-intimate homicide was brought about and also points to the importance of firearms control in saving women’s lives. Yet these aspects of the data which begin the important task of delineating the prevention of women’s violent deaths have scarcely been examined – so towering has been the sense of injury to white masculinity.

Black mens’ role

This lack of interest in the prevention of non-intimate homicides may also be informed by many white South Africans’ assumption that the stranger/intruder is, by definition, black and that explanations for violence require nothing further than reference to “blackness”.

Black men have not quietly acquiesced to this representation of themselves and in 2004, South Africans witnessed a particularly acrimonious exchange on this subject between former president Thabo Mbeki and Charlene Smith, a journalist who wrote extensively about HIV and her experience of being raped.

Smith’s statement that South Africa had the highest rate of rape in the world and her conclusion that the role of religion, tradition and culture in shaping men’s attitudes towards women in Africa drew angry fire from Mbeki. He wrote:

I … will not keep quiet while others whose minds have been corrupted by the disease of racism, accuse us, the black people of South Africa, Africa and the world, as being, by virtue of our Africanness and skin colour – lazy, liars, foul-smelling, diseased, corrupt, violent, amoral, sexually depraved, animalistic, savage – and rapist.

This was followed with a second column some weeks later.

Challenges to the persistent – and life-threatening – stereotyping of black men as violent and criminal are crucial. But such challenges are made complicated when race is not the only issue at stake. Because the Mbeki-Smith debate became so focused on challenging the demonisation of black men, it left aside discussion of black women’s experiences of violence by black men. The current argument around who kills white women demonstrates yet another facet of invisibility to black women’s experience of violence.

‘Gender’ violence misses the point

Just as race can be used to deflect attention away from men’s violence, so too can gender function in this way.

In many of South Africa’s institutions, the notion of “gender” has been conveniently simplified and degraded to mean “referring to or including both women and men”. Those who adopt this understanding argue that rape and domestic violence cannot be referred to as violence against women. Instead, it must more properly be described as gender-based violence because men also experience such forms of violence, while women also perpetrate such crimes.

But this logic creates a false equivalence in the proportions of men and women experiencing and perpetrating rape and domestic violence and significantly downplays the extent of men’s involvement in violence towards women.

The social and political dynamics of men’s violence towards women are fraught and frequently work in ways that downplay men’s responsibility for their actions. The Pistorius trial is thus far more than a legal enquiry into the athlete’s responsibility for the death of Reeva Steenkamp. Indeed, it is a window onto the larger narratives and politics of gender and race permanently under construction in South Africa.

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