On Tuesday 21 October 2014, Olympian and Paralympic gold medallist Oscar Pistorius was handed a five-year custodial prison sentence for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Not since the trial of American football star O. J. Simpson has the trial of an athlete gathered so much attention as that of Oscar, the “blade-runner”. Awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in 2006 for achievements in sport, winner of BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2007 and the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of Strathclyde in 2012, Pistorius was one of South Africa’s favourite sons. In a country which has only enjoyed democracy for the twenty years, for many Pistorius had come to embody the very essence of “rainbowism”; the human embodiment of triumph over adversity.
This “Pistorius as hero” paradigm came crashing down when it emerged that he had shot dead his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, in his en-suite bathroom on the morning of Valentine’s Day, 2013. According to Pistorius, he believed there was an intruder in the bathroom, and his response was to fire four shots through the locked bathroom door.
Despite having one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, the disjuncture between legal definitions and cultural attitudes has been laid bare by the Pistorius trial. If anything, the trial and ensuing media circus has demonstrated the ways in which a particularly aggressive form of hegemonic masculinity remains dominant and deeply embedded in post-apartheid society. In particular, for most commentators, the lenient sentence passed down by high court judge, Thokozile Masipa, reflected South Africa’s troubling attitude towards Gender Based Violence (GBV). If, as many commentators have argued, it was difficult to see justice served for the killing of a wealthy, white, attractive woman, then whither justice in the townships?
Since 1994, the country has witnessed a particularly aggressive form of GBV in black townships in the form of the “corrective” rape of black lesbians. This desire to punish and discipline the black female body has been attributed to post-colonial dissatisfaction with the pace of transformation in South Africa and a reflection on what Adrienne Rich termed as the entrenchment of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’. In a country where it is estimated that 3,600 women are raped every day, where 75% of men have committed violence against women and more than 50% of women have experienced GBV in their lifetime, what chance did a longer sentence really have of being passed? As broadcaster Masechaba Lekalake so depressingly put it: ‘If Oscar had killed a rhino he’d have been given a harsher sentence’.
Kate Law is an African gender historian based at the University of the Free State, South Africa. She studied for her PhD at the University of Sheffield.
Image by Discott at Wikimedia Commons, used under a Creative Commons Licence.