Can the “miraculous discharge” inspire a miraculous change for the women of South Africa?

By Dani Schaefer Williams

Domestic abuse in South Africa

Cast your minds back to 2012, to the British event of the current decade. When all of the UK was bathed in glory and 15 year-old girls were frantically replacing posters of boy-bands with their favourite Olympic heroes. These champions were revered the world over for their skill, commitment and bravery, and none less than the Bladerunner himself, Oscar Pistorius. The combination of good looks and humility seemed too good to be true.

Fast forward to Valentine’s day 2013, less than a year on. We turned on our TVs and watched in horror as our favourite Paralympic idol was arrested on suspicion of shooting his beautiful girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.  “What a tragedy”, we tweeted. “It must have been a terrible accident”, we whispered over water coolers. “How could this have happened?” yelled the newspapers.

But happen it did. Now a family in South Africa will forever mourn the loss of an incredibly bright and promising daughter, sister and friend.

Since the start of the trial, we have been gripped by the events of the courtroom in Pretoria. And as one implausible excuse after another came pouring from Oscar Pistorius’s trembling lips, surely the question we must now ask is not, “is he guilty?” but (like so many others before him),  “Will he get away with it?”

Admittedly, prosecutor Gerrie Nel has been merciless. His furious, five day interrogation of Pistorius has been relentless and even the toughest of suspects would have surely crumbled under such intense scrutiny. But crumble he has. His whimpering responses have done nothing to convince us that what we first assumed must have been an accident, was anything but. He has lied and cheated and squirmed his way out of every question, taking no responsibility for anything. Even when confronted with unshakeable evidence, backed up by the testimonies of several friends, experts and impartial bystanders, will he admit that any of the events that lead up to him shooting his girlfriend in the head were in any way his fault.

The smiling superman of 2012 has slowly but surely morphed into an arrogant, pathetic man-child. One who is so used to getting his own way, and being so supremely powerful in the world he inhabits, that even in face of undeniable responsibility, he is prepared to blame everyone else (including his victim) for the heinous crime that has been committed.

Pistorius’s arrogance and complete lack of any accountability for any wrongdoing will, I sincerely hope, be the things that condemn him to life imprisonment. Reeva Steenkamp, an unlikely victim in every way, has demonstrated to South Africa and the world that they have a serious problem. If Reeva, a trained paralegal, a supermodel, a caring, proud and confident young woman, isn’t safe from the ubiquitous disease of chauvinism and misogyny that plagues the country, are any women? The statistics regarding domestic violence that have been brought to light by this, and the terrifying story of Anene Booysen, (the 17 year old victim of such a barbaric rape and murder, that the whole country pledged to wear black for a whole day) are shocking to say the very least.

The World Health Organisation reported in 2013 that over 60,000 women and children in South Africa fall victim to domestic violence every month; a staggering statistic which is the highest in the world. Combined with this, they also have one of the highest rates of ‘femicide’ – a woman being murdered by an intimate partner, a crime that happens every eight hours in the country. Sadly, this horrifying statement is probably not even the whole story, as the police don’t always distinguish the difference between attacks that are from strangers and those that are perpetrated in a domestic setting. There is a widespread belief that women should “obey their husbands”, an opinion that is also shared by at least half of the women surveyed. In addition to this South Africa also has one of the highest numbers of rape incidents in the world. A survey in Johannesburg’s provincial capital, the Gauteng Province, revealed that 37.4 per cent of the men in the area admitted to having raped someone and 25.3 per cent of the women admitted to being raped. In a country that has had so much persecution and segregation in their history, surely it is now time to open a public discourse about the other subjugated group in society?

So many times when discussing rape and domestic violence, we talk about the victims. “Why do they stay?”, “Why do they put their children through it?” “They must be weak of character to put up with treatment like that.” The implication being that it is somehow the victim’s fault. David Smith in the Guardian wrote:

“The survey also found that 32 per cent of men and women agreed that ‘in any rape case, one would have to question whether the victim is promiscuous,’ while 20.1 per cent of men and 15.6 per cent of women said that ‘in some rape cases, women want it to happen.”

We must be clear that rape and domestic violence are not ‘women’s issues’, they are about the men. We should not be asking what the women did or didn’t do, we need to ask why the men (and, worryingly, the women) think it’s acceptable. Even the country’s president, Jacob Zuma, (whilst publicly proclaiming that stiffer penalties must be issued to those committing these crimes) has been accused of rape in the past. The Domestic Violence act, initiated five years ago, has had very little impact on the statistics or the culture of silence and shame. If this problem is going to be unravelled, we must first look to how South Africans can teach their sons to respect their mothers, sisters and wives; so that they grow up into a nation of compassionate, strong and kind men. It is down to the country’s leaders: teachers, doctors, policemen, sports stars, politicians, to guide by example and stand up against the kind of casual, cultural misogyny that teaches the new generations that to be a woman is second best.

The Oscar Pistorius case is not unique, but the fact that it has been played out through the eyes of the world’s media means that people like me are starting to sit up and take notice of what is happening to South Africa’s women. Trials obviously don’t tell the whole story, no matter how in depth the questioning, and no one but he will ever truly know whether or not he meant to shoot her. But the way that the justice system addresses this crime has the power to deliver a significant message to society. For the legacy that has been left by all of those women who said the wrong thing, wore the wrong dress or just simply didn’t measure up and paid with their lives, we hope that it’s the right one.

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