South Africa is a violent place. Our rape and domestic violence statistics make it one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a woman. Last year alone there were 15,609 murders, but the sensational events surrounding the murder charges against Oscar Pistorius brought this into sharp focus.
When I returned to live in South Africa 10 years ago, I found the pervasive fear of violent crime – often irrational, inarticulate and unrelated to the actual facts of crime – debilitating. But I was an investigative journalist so I decided to try and ascertain the facts about both violence and crime in South Africa. It seemed to me that this would help me not only to stay alive, but also how to actually live in this country. So for years I have interviewed gangsters, pathologists, cops and survivors.
News reporting enabled me to list a series of facts but it didn’t help me get to the underlying truth about the complex and often misogynistic origins of the violence that plagues South Africa. Perversely perhaps, I turned to writing crime fiction in a country where crime is anything but fictional and fear and guns seem to be everywhere.
I like guns even less than I like fear, but I did wonder at one point whether it might be a good idea after all to sleep with a gun next to my bed. I put this question to a police colonel who had taken it upon himself to teach me to shoot when I interviewed him about firearms and ballistics five years ago.
“Will I be safer if I keep a gun at home?” I asked him.
“Tell me this,” he said. “If you woke up at night and you heard a noise or saw someone moving down the passage, what would you do?”
“I’d ask who was there,” I replied.
He laughed. “It’s South Africa’s Catch-22. You’d get a gun licence no problem, but there’d be no point because if that were an intruder in your house, then he’d have shot you by then. So better not to have a gun and shoot your husband by mistake.”
I have thought a great deal about that conversation since the beautiful Reeva Steenkamp was shot on Valentine’s Day. The case is no whodunit; the single undisputed fact is that this young woman was shot dead by her boyfriend, Oscar Pistorius. The first reports said that the iconic Blade Runner, an exceptional man because of both his ability and his disability, had mistaken Steenkamp for an intruder and that he had shot her “accidentally”. Fear of dangerous others (JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians captures the essence of this) has legitimised aggression in South Africa for centuries. So, startling as this claim was, it initially passed without comment.
So what of this terrible “fear of crime” that Pistorius alleges explains (and therefore somehow justifies) why he fired four shots through a closed door without checking where his girlfriend was. This has haunted me since Reeva Steenkamp’s death.
Pistorius’s defence hinges on his state of mind. A “whydunit” with a quintessentially South African twist. His defence is that he made the lethal but “understandable” mistake of shooting first and thinking later because of his extreme but essentially reasonable fear of crime. This atavistic fear apparently existed despite the fact that Pistorius lived, like so many wealthy South Africans white and black, in a walled complex protected by armed guards where no burglaries had been reported for five years. Although this fear seems disconnected from the reality of Pistorius’s secure and privileged life, this would not be the first time a shooting like this has happened. A few months ago a little Johannesburg girl got out of bed to fetch some water. Her father thought she was an intruder and shot her dead.
The police, however, allege that the evidence they found at Pistorius’s Silver Lakes home tells a different story. Within hours Pistorius, international track star and a beloved, local hero, had been arrested and charged with Steenkamp’s murder. A judge will have to decide if Pistorius committed a pre-meditated murder or not. There were only two people present when the shooting took place and one of them is dead, so the case will pivot on forensic evidence. The comforts of forensic exactitude and copious police resources, the stock fantasy of crime fiction, are all too often exactly that in South Africa, a fantasy.
This is a country where the word femicide has, with good reason, slipped with chilling ease into every day usage. The truth of Oscar Pistorius’s claims will come under careful scrutiny when the case comes to trial, but I wonder if this state of abject terror to which Pistorius lays claim is the new and terrifying normal for some South Africans. If it is, then how are we to live with the murderous violence that has embedded itself in our hearts as well as our homes and deprived the Steenkamp family of their cherished daughter, Reeva? DM
Margie Orford is the author of the Clare Hart crime series. The most recent title is Gallows Hill, published by Jonathan Ball. www.margieorford.com