WHAT a Valentine's Day surprise that was! On Wednesday of last week, a young woman in Pretoria posted a comment on her Twitter page supporting a campaign urging her fellow South Africans to wear black to remember thousands of women who are raped and killed, often by their male partners. Early the next morning, on the day universally dedicated to love, three 9-millimetre bullets felled Reeva Steenkamp as she engaged in one of the most normal functions of a human being, in the toilet of her boyfriend's apartment. Those bullets were from her boyfriend's pistol — fired, he said, because he thought there was an intruder.
That's no ordinary boyfriend. He is Oscar Pistorius, who came to the world's notice as a star athlete by performing amazing feats on the running track and playing field. He was born 26 years ago without fibulas — calf bones — which, along with the longer fibulas, connect the knees and the ankles. While he was still an infant, surgeons removed the lower portion of his legs, leaving him with stumps to which prostheses were fitted, allowing him to walk and run. And that is exactly what young Oscar did. He played rugby, water polo and tennis at school until a knee injury forced him to quit. So he took up running.
As he progressed in his athletic career, Pistorius acquired a pair of high-tech artificial legs which look nothing like legs. Made of curved plastic material reinforced with carbon fibres, the prostheses gave him bounce and grip and allowed him to compete in a string of local, regional and international athletic competitions, and earned him the nickname "Blade Runner" and "the fastest man on no legs". Remarkably, he competed both in games for the handicapped as well as for able-bodied athletes and began his Olympic career at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. Last year he starred in both the regular Olympics and was the flag-bearer at the Paralympic Games in London. Like our own Usain Bolt and many other former Olympians, his athletic prowess brought him fame. Sports bodies, universities and other organisations showed him with awards, and as giant multi-national companies offered sponsorships, he accumulated generous financial rewards as well.
Pistorius and Steenkamp got together last November in a relationship Pistorius describes as a happy one without strife. "We were deeply in love, and I could not be happier" he told a reporter, adding "I know she felt the same way." Steenkamp, who was 29, grew up in the eastern city of Port Elizabeth and was a law school graduate who turned to modelling. A close friend said she wanted to use her growing profile as a model and girlfriend of one of South Africa's most prominent sports figures to raise awareness of the scourge of female abuse in her country. Her body was cremated on Tuesday in her hometown and her family called for the authorities to deal harshly with Pistorius.
The attention of South Africans and the wider world was focused this week on a courtroom in Pretoria. Pistorius was summoned for a hearing on whether or not he should be allowed bail in connection with a charge of premeditated murder for Steenkamp's death. Pistorius claims that around three o'clock on the morning in question he woke up to move a fan from the balcony and to close the sliding doors to the room. He heard a noise in the bathroom and surmised that someone had entered the apartment. Worried about the crime which is rampant in South Africa, he remembered that the bathroom window had no bars, and that construction workers had left ladders in the garden.
So he grabbed his gun handily kept under his bed and ran on his stumps towards the bathroom where he was confronted with the locked door of the toilet cubicle. He squeezed off four shots from his pistol and hobbled back towards the bedroom, shouting to Steenkamp to call the police. When he got back to the bed, he realised that she wasn't there. He broke down the door with a cricket bat and found her.
Although this is just a bail hearing, it has taken on the atmosphere of a full trial with all sorts of additional drama, including the switching of police witnesses in mid-stream. It has also brought into focus many troubling aspects of South African society, starting with the competence — or lack thereof — of the police and the wider questions of a culture of violence, love of guns and wide disparity in the status of women and men.
A country at war with its women
South Africa is often described as one of the most violence-ridden countries in the world outside of a war zone. Middle and upper class communities would be quite familiar to Jamaicans — security alarms, motion detectors, barred windows and doors, three-metre walls and fences topped with barbed wire and gates manned by security guards.
It is most dangerous of all to women. Four days before her death, Steenkamp sent out a Twitter message referring to another victim of violence. Seventeen-year-old Anene Booysen was found at a construction site in the small town of Brebasdrop, a couple of hours' drive from Cape Town. Her body was slashed right down the front, from throat to crotch, and her insides were strewn all around. Incredibly, she was still alive, and was able, before she died, to provide the name of one of her attackers — a family friend with whom she had become close.
Rape and other forms of physical violence are commonplace for South African women. The South African Medical Research Centre reports that between 1999 and 2009, the rate of homicide was five times as high as the world rate. Every six minutes, a woman is raped and, on average, three women are killed each day by a partner or a relative. And according to a prominent South African commentator, Justice Malala: "This is a country at war with its women." He says studies have shown that around 28 per cent of South African men have admitted to raping someone.
Last year, more than 64,000 women reported to police that they had been raped — and that's only the number who worked up the courage to file a report. Most women don't even bother to go to the police to report a rape, as they believe, rightly, that nothing will come of it. The research centre also reports that while the overall rate of murders went down dramatically in the period studied, the rate of women killed by current or former partners had not changed significantly.
Most disturbing is how little people are bothered by all this. Men believe that it is perfectly normal — and even their right — to shove women around. And many women accept this as a normal state of affairs.
The court in Pretoria will decide soon whether to release Pistorius on bail or keep him locked up. When the trial does take place, one outcome should not come as a surprise. Between South Africa's lack of a jury system, incompetent police forensic work and the prevailing culture of misogyny, it's quite possible for him to go free.
And we should not forget the basic principle of our own legal system ... we presume a person to be innocent until proven otherwise.