Pistorius' nightmare, Meyiwa's reality

SCARED: Paralympic star Pistorius claimed he thought he was facing an intruder when he fired his gun last year, killing his girlfriend.
Pistorius' nightmare, Meyiwa's reality

KILLED: South Africa's football captain, Meyiwa, was shot dead in an apparent robbery. Blacks are far more often the victims of violence than whites in South Africa.


    Nov 05, 2014

    Pistorius' nightmare, Meyiwa's reality

    LAST month, South Africa's double-amputee Paralympic and Olympic star, Oscar Pistorius, was convicted of the local equivalent of manslaughter. He maintained throughout his trial that the shooting of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in February last year was a tragic mistake.

    In acquitting him of premeditated murder, the judge accepted that Pistorius had a deep and profound fear of crime and that he had fired his gun based on the sincere belief that an intruder - rather than his girlfriend - lurked behind a bathroom door and that his life was in danger.

    Last week, South African prosecutors decided to appeal against the light sentence given to Pistorius, who is white. The same day, the country woke up to the news that the goalkeeper and captain of the national football team, Senzo Meyiwa, who is black, had been shot dead in what appears to have been a robbery gone wrong.

    The crime Pistorius claims he feared when firing shots through the door and the actual circumstances of Meyiwa's death were quite similar. But the former's darkest fears were just that - fears.

    In the case of Meyiwa, it was tragically real - and, unfortunately, his untimely death is not an aberration in South Africa, where blacks are far more often the victims of violence than whites.

    South Africa has an exceptionally severe crisis of violent criminality. Last year, over 17,000 murders were recorded by police, generating a per capita homicide rate nearly seven times higher than in the United States. There were also nearly 20,000 home invasions recorded by the police, a figure that is widely believed to understate the reality.

    As serious as the situation is, the fear of crime - particularly among white South Africans - has sometimes become untethered from reality. An example of this is the conviction that has taken root among some sections of the white community that their risk of becoming victims of crime are considerably higher than the average.

    This sense, stoked by the constant coverage of white victims' experiences by some sections of the media, has fostered a grossly inflated sense of the level of violence experienced by white South Africans.

    So inflated, that some influential Afrikaners' voices have described what is happening as "genocide".

    This, of course, is nonsense. All the data available suggests that, while per capita murder rates among white South Africans are high by international standards, they are considerably lower than the rates of lethal violence experienced by their black compatriots.

    All the data we have suggests that rates of victimisation among black South Africans are considerably higher than among whites.

    Meyiwa's death, in other words, was statistically more probable than any attack Pistorius feared might befall him. So what, then, are we to make of the sense of vulnerability and persecution in the white community?

    By most measures, white South Africans have done well over the past 20 years. Yet, the sense that they are now an oppressed and vulnerable minority is strong.

    This fear is only partly due to crime rates, which are higher than they were 20 years ago. But the most important source of insecurity arises from a recognition that a privileged minority, whose privileges arose from a system of injustice and dispossession, will always have to look over its shoulder.

    Pistorius' fears were an aspect of the vertiginous sense of disenfranchisement that has accompanied white South Africans' loss of power.

    The death of Meyiwa has shocked the country. But in a society as violent as South Africa's, his death, like the deaths of the nearly 50 people murdered on average every day, is - as one writer put it - an "everyday abnormality".

    As fearful as some white South Africans are, the victims of those abnormalities are much more likely to be black than white.