Oscar Pistorius: Symptom or Cause?

Sport lovers amongst us awoke to the big news on the 14th February – and this time it wasn’t that the romantic day had crept up on us unaware – but that Oscar Pistorius had been involved in the fatal shooting of his girlfriend and South African model, Reeva Steenkamp. Any death is a tragedy, especially of someone so young, but undoubtedly the headlines were made because it was barely possible to imagine that the global icon of 2012 was charged with premeditated murder six months after making Olympic history. The trial is now centred on intention. Did Pistorius have a heated row with Steenkamp before shooting her through the door of his bathroom, or was he (as his defence states), scared that a burglar had broken into the only unbarred window, and shot out of fear? Now I do not want to go into the details of the case that have been released to the media, and I do not have any will to speculate as to whether he did or did not mean to kill. Rather I’d prefer to focus on the underlying issues that have been exposed to the world throughout this media frenzy.

Image courtesy of Michael Greenwood, © 2012, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Michael Greenwood, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Firstly, the most striking point to me is that this case has exposed South Africa’s worst side to the world. After the focus on the 2010 Football World Cup did so much to boost South Africa’s public image, this has damaged it just as much. The damage actually comes from the underlying message of Pistorius’ defence – South Africans live in a climate of fear and crime. Violence has also appeared prevalent, as not only is Pistorius’ defence that he was trying to shoot a burglar, but then it turned out that the detective in charge of the case, Hilton Botha, was himself facing murder charges. Pistorius’ defence identifies him not as a one small addition, one of many causes of the state’s crime statistics, but in fact as a symptom, with the fear of a house burglary enough to cause this tragic event.  The darker side of the state – a society of fear, guns and crime – had been exposed to the world. For many, this is not news. Watching a documentary recently, a lot of attention was drawn to the levels of security at Pistorius’ residential compound. The presenter implied doubt as to any burglar’s ability to breach the high walls, manned checkpoints and electric fencing, yet what are the implications on the mentalities of those who live in these compounds? Surely they serve as a constant reminder of the danger that can be faced in cities such as Pretoria and increase the levels of fear of house burglaries within them? The level of fear within these societies is often forgotten amongst day-to-day life, but the statistics make a disturbing reading. Southern Africa has the highest murder rate of any region in the world, and areas such as Johannesburg, Cape Town and Pretoria are some of the highest within the region. With over 15,000 murders occurring at an average of 43 murders occurring per day in the 2011/12 period, South Africa has the unenviable position of sitting at twelfth to bottom in the world for crime rates according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. In fact, total (reported) crime rates have decreased by 21% since 2001/2, but they are still lying at exactly the same level as they were in 1995[1]. (Although it must be said that murder rates have halved in relation to their highest rates in 1995).

In a recent tutorial, we were using South Africa as a good example of how a state can survive without imploding into political violence, despite huge inequality within. South Africa is home to the second most unequal society in the world, yet it does continue to function. However, perhaps these extraordinarily high crime rates are the consequence – internal crime rather than political violence.

Yet how does a state go about this crime prevention? Bringing down poverty rates takes time but will undoubtedly be a necessity. Police measures could be improved, as the Pistorius case has shown that their standards are severely lacking – the problems extend beyond Hilton Botha and go right to the very top of the police institution with the last two national police chiefs being sacked for corruption. Petty corruption is still rife and much of the Pistorius case has accepted that personal defence is an acceptable precaution in light of lacking police achievements.

In fact, as mentioned, measures do seem to be working to a degree, with there being decreases in murder rates, bank robberies and even house robberies over the last 10 years.  The amount of work that needs to be done to bring crime rates down to anything near acceptable is monumental though. A 10% decline from the summit of Everest still leaves you very high up the mountain. The police budgets have been dramatically increased over the last few years with the aims of law enforcement and crime prevention forming a dual attack on South Africa crime, yet little real improvement will arrive until the social inequality gap is decreased. Who knows, maybe the involvement of one of South Africa’s greatest sports stars will in fact lead to renewed efforts to tackle crime in the ‘Rainbow Nation’.

[1] Institute for Security Studies, Official Crime Statistics for 2011/12, www.issafrica.org

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