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The Oscar Pistorious case

Through the legal case of Oscar Pistorious there is a powerful and dangerous interplay of race, class and gender. It is time that all crimes against women are dealt the seriousness they deserve.

In the last one month, there has been an increase in the number of heinous and violent crimes targeted at young girls and women in South Africa. The most recent was the Anene Booysen murder that appears to have been overtaken by the ‘alleged’ murder of Reeva Steenkamp by paralympian Oscar Pistorious. These murders - and in Anene’s case brutal misogynistic rape - come against the backdrop of a series of important and informative events. The Pistorious case cannot in my view be treated in isolation of a complex culture, which makes its eventual outcome a defining moment for South Africa. Whether that moment shifts the socio-political terrain is another matter altogether.


Between 2011 to 2012, two important centres in Cape Town, which have historically responded to diverse forms of gender based violence were all struggling for survival. The Saartjie Baartman centre for Women and Children, which is a one stop center for abused women and children and the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust experienced cuts in government funding in addition to an international financial climate that resulted in dwindling external financial support. The combination of these factors rendered both of these organisations on the verge of closure. In 2008, the Saartjie Baartman centre for instance was key to offering support to refugee women and women from other parts of the African continent who were targeted during the spate of afro-phobic violence across South Africa. The Rape Crisis Centre through counseling, legal, on call support to survivors of rape and other forms of violence has been an essential pillar in accompanying victims of violence in the journey of becoming survivors of violence. I am certain that these two institutions are representative of the crisis of civil society organization in general. The concerted efforts of women’s rights activists who recognize the importance of these institutions and their interventions (and others like them) to dismantling patriarchy has seen these organisations push along. The potential crumbling of these institutions in light of state de-commitment is critical in a context where the South African National Prosecuting authority’s statistics for 2011 indicate that 170,000 cases of domestic and other forms of violence against women were lodged and of these 60,000 cases were withdrawn.


Alongside this struggle for survival, two other important political events occurred on South Africa’s landscape. The first was the public murder of miners in Marikana who dared protest in order to demand for an acceptable living wage and the second was the constant revival and disappearance of the Traditional Courts Bill. The Marikana massacre brought home the class struggle - and in this instance racialised - against the capitalist ruling class. It also pointed to a State that was willing to sacrifice a few inconsequential black workers or allow state machinery (the police) to be used to ensure that the wheel of capital was sustained. The historical racial and gendered dynamics that the Marikana massacre revived cannot be over-emphasized. Suffice to say, it illuminated the currency attached to black lives and dealt an assault on the ideological and struggle history of the African National Congress whose key veteran Cyril Ramaphosa was adversely implicated in the state sanctioned violence against workers. Ramaphosa who set up the National Union of Mine Workers is a major shareholder in Lonmin.


The Traditional Courts Bill on the other hand has served the function of re-introducing the moral regeneration debate. The Bill re-emerged in its new iteration and sought to re-assert a parallel and recalcitrant legislative system that places power in the hands of traditional chiefs. The bill is considered a reversal of the rights of women by making traditional chiefs powerful overlords who are not subject to democratic checks or balances.

Parallel to these contestations have been the ardent voices of organisations and individuals responding to and ensuring some form of justice for the murders of women identifying as lesbian. The fact that these hate crimes have disproportionately affected black women has emphasized both the racial and class dynamics connected to the question of choice and the exercise of freedoms that the constitution assures in the new South Africa. It is a fact that most of these cases have gone unprosecuted with very few perpetrators being held to account.

These reversals cannot be dislocated from a political regime that is struggling for support and legitimacy in light of a polity that is polarised along race, gender and class interests. These have most prominently been embodied in big business, the continuing service delivery crisis and escalating misogyny. The resurgence of 'tradition' in contemporary South Africa is in my view a window through which a new South African nationalism is being re-cast.


These series of events over the last two years, in my opinion set the stage for why the Pistorious case matters and is defining for South Africa. Through the Pistorious case there is a powerful and dangerous interplay of race, class and gender. Firstly, this is not simply about a wealthy man killing his Caucasian girl friend in what appears to be dubious circumstances. It has got to do with whether the South African justice system can offer irredeemable proof after the Jacob Zuma rape trial (for which he was acquitted)– that crimes against women will be dealt with, with the seriousness they deserve. This means that the technicalities inherent in burden of proof provisions within the law, suave fast talking lawyers and state’s (in)ability to build an effective case do not become the route through which those with vast financial resources at their disposal escape accountability.

Secondly, while we all want whoever was responsible for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp to be held accountable, it is equally important that this case demonstrates that there isn’t any racial currency attached to femicide. The fact that there are a number of ongoing, unresolved brutal rapes and murder of women in South Africa – determines that this case will act as a singular moment through which we ought to see a ricochet of convictions and a commitment by the justice system to fast track the resolution of similar cases as well as deal with the reasons that inform the high number of case withdrawal.

Finally, in a context where gendered and racialised lives have in the recent past appeared disposable, where the daily existence of women and girls is framed by fear – the reversals witnessed through the moral regeneration debates, government re-prioritisation of resources to much needed services to women survivors of violence point to a dangerous trajectory in the reconstitution of this patriarchal state.

The rapes and murders are not standalone criminal acts and the political machinations are not simply that – politicking ahead of a presidential election. They are a chain of events that warn us of the state of things to come. The post-election violence in Kenya in 2007/8 heightened Kenyans senses to the wide scale danger and potential irreversibility of ethnic stereotypes and politicization of ethnicity. It made us alert to and insist on accountability however fledging, from the political class.

Similarly, the wanton disregard for the lives of women and the manipulation of state resources and institutions to re-assert glorified and romanticized notions of pristine African pasts, signals a new phase in the re-calibration of a new patriarchal South Africa. The negotiation of power and interests in contemporary nation-states rests on the malleability and subjugation of gendered citizenship through which race, ethnic and class tensions are propagated, sustained and/or resolved.

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* Awino Okech is a feminist researcher based in Nairobi, Kenya.