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Pistorius and South Africa's culture of fear

Oscar Pistorius case in a window on a society ruled by a terror of crime

By Matthew Durington

11:47 AM EST, February 22, 2013

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As details continue to emerge about the killing of Reeva Steenkamp by the Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius, one fact appears to be certain: The man known as the "Blade Runner" did fire four bullets through a bathroom door in his South African home, killing his girlfriend. Thus, it might appear that this will be an open-and-shut case when Mr. Pistorius goes before a judge in a trial that will inevitably become a media spectacle in South Africa and beyond on the scale of the O.J. Simpson trial. But as many know within South Africa, every issue is not black and white. Despite evidence to the contrary, there is a gray area that will inevitably find its way into prominence in defense testimony and press coverage.

This killing took place within the confines of a gated community. The defendant, the victim and more than likely the judge who will preside over the trial live within secured enclaves meant to protect a segment of the South African population that can afford such protection from crime.

Gated communities, often called "golf estates," are enclosed spaces protected by a number of security measures such as electrified fences, razor wire, patrols and enhanced biometric and technological measures that continue to be developed by a "fear industry" that flourishes in South Africa. This fear industry emboldens a fear culture that is obsessed with crime and its avoidance. While we may see this as an irrational fear, as the majority of crime occurs in concentrated spaces among the black population (not unlike in the United States), one has to respect the nature of crime in South Africa. Despite a murder rate that has begun to decline in recent years, South Africa still has crime levels that are astronomical, with a homicide rate approximately four times that of most industrialized nations. Still, it is unlikely that this type of crime would have touched people like Oscar Pistorius or Reeva Steenkamp, especially within a gated community.

The assertion that Mr. Pistorius believed there was an intruder in his home may seem unlikely in a secured home in the middle of a gated community, but it is a perception that many in South Africa will relate to. A segment of the South African psyche will understand the fear and the reaction allegedly spurred by it, despite any evidence to the contrary.

The home in South Africa — at least the home as it is conceptualized within a gated community — is a nervous space, and the mindset within these spaces becomes imbued with the sentiment that becoming a victim is inevitable. In the flurry of speculation emerging around Mr. Pistorius, there may be a number of causal factors that will be forwarded by the prosecution and defense. It is likely that at some point the irony that Reeva Steenkamp was in a secured home within a gated community may become central in understanding why she lost her life.

Ms. Steenkamp's death and Mr. Pistorius' arrest are tragic on many levels. The most obvious disaster is that a young, beautiful and thoughtful woman has been robbed of her life and all the potential that may have come from it. But it is also a tragedy for the country as it continues to struggle through the neoliberal malaise of the last 18 years to find a foothold on the world stage through global events such as the 2010 World Cup. Since the 2012 Olympics, Oscar Pistorius has enjoyed a level of prominence approaching that of Nelson Mandela as a representative of the "new South Africa." While Nike may have lost another athlete in its advertisements, the disabled community has lost an advocate that had limitless potential.

On Friday, Mr. Pistorius was granted bail to live "free" within South Africa until his trial — except he will be metaphorically held prisoner in a gated community. The impending deliberations will not affect the ordinary citizens of South Africa struggling with unemployment and a variety of socioeconomic ills as the country continues to emerge as a prominent player on the world stage. But it may lead some to question the cultural confines that gated communities can create for a segment of the population within the new South Africa.

Matthew Durington, a cultural anthropologist and director of international studies at Towson University, has conducted ethnographic research in gated communities in South Africa. His email is mdurington@towson.edu.

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