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19 April 2014 20:34 (South Africa)
Opinionista Pierre de Vos

All we know is that a woman is dead

  • Pierre de Vos
Another woman is dead today. She is one of the many women who die every day at the hands of their spouses or partners. Her name is Reeva Steenkamp. The only shocking thing about her death is that most of us only know her name because she was allegedly shot and killed by her famous boyfriend, Oscar Pistorius. As is often the case when allegations are made about spousal abuse or killing, many people have jumped to Pistorius’s defence and expressed sympathy for him. But how could they possibly know whether he is guilty or innocent?

When news broke that Oscar Pistorius allegedly shot his girlfriend, initial reports included a mysterious exculpatory explanation: he mistook her for an intruder. No one knows where this explanation came from. It was as if it was unthinkable for the journalists that a man (a white man, a sportsman), could ever deliberately harm his girlfriend. Of course, we know it is not unthinkable. It happens every day in all corners of South Africa. Men of all classes and races abuse and sometimes kill their partners. It is not unthinkable.

As I write this, I have no idea what happened in the early hours of Thursday morning in the house of Oscar Pistorius. The facts might eventually show that he is guilty of murder or culpable homicide. The facts might show that he is innocent. All we know is that a woman is dead and that Pistorius is alleged to have caused her death.

A court will eventually decide on Pistorius’s criminal innocence or guilt. But – as was the case when allegations of spousal abuse by Tokyo Sexwale were reported in the media – others seemed to have made up their minds with no evidence to back up their belief. He is innocent. He is guilty.

Some have decided that Pistorius is innocent (because he is a sports star? because he is white? because he is middle class?). They say: “Poor Oscar, we support him in his hour of need.” But they do not know whether they are supporting a murderer or not.

How can they know he is innocent? Is it because they respond in solidarity to the plight of another man and wish to erase the possibility that a man could kill his partner? That would be bizarre as men hurt their partners every day: men of all races and classes and all walks of life. Are they responding to a famous person, assuming that famous people do not abuse or kill their partners?

There has been no court case to determine his innocence. There has also been scant reporting on the circumstances that led to the death of Reeva Steenkamp. It is rather ironic that many of the same people who assume Oscar is innocent would assume that any allegation of corruption made in the media against a politician is true – also long before a court case and also when little evidence on the alleged corruption have been revealed by the media.

Just as troubling is the fact that others seemed to have assumed he is guilty (because he is white? because he is famous? because he is disabled?). Many of those who have already decided that Oscar is guilty invoke the “innocent until proven guilty” mantra whenever a politician is accused of corruption (or spousal abuse).

It is as if it the facts are irrelevant and we either believe in his innocence or guilt based on the identity of the person accused of the crime.

How could they know in either case? On what facts are they basing their assumption?

One thing nobody has argued is that the media should not have reported on the allegations that Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend – unlike with the allegations against Tokyo Sexwale. Some balk at this comparison. In the case of Tokyo no one is dead. There is no lifeless body – only a legal document containing an explosive allegation of spousal abuse.

But this is also telling. Often allegations by women that they have been raped or abused are dismissed because the rape or the abuse was not “violent enough”. She was not stabbed or shot or mutilated, so the allegations cannot be true. That attitude is part of the problem around rape and spousal abuse.

Once again, we do not know whether Pistorius murdered his girlfriend or not. Neither do we know whether Sexwale physically abused his wife. We do know that allegations have been made in both cases and we should expect the media to report on them and try and find out more facts.

This the media will hopefully do in an unbiased manner. It must try to ascertain as many facts as possible and must report on them accurately and without bias. As more facts emerge it will become more plausible to make a tentative (but always provisional) personal assessment of the situation, an assessment that must always be subject to the final word of the court.

Meanwhile, another woman is dead today. Because Oscar Pistorius is famous, I fear that many of us (including many in the media) will forget this. Oscar is not dead. Reeva Steenkamp is. We should not forget that. Neither should we forget that many women are abused or killed by their partners every day. DM

  • Pierre de Vos
Pierre de vos

Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

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