Get unlimited digital access to baltimoresun.com. $0.99 for 4 weeks.
News Opinion Op-Eds

Pistorius and South Africa's culture of fear

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.

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts
  • Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
    Related Content
    • Don't glorify violence against women
      Don't glorify violence against women

      I'm writing you to express concern over how the media has covered the death of South African Reeva Steenkamp ("Pistorius breaks down in first court appearance," Feb. 16). She has been sexually objectified, and her loss of life has been trivialized. I ask that you please avoid sexualizing her in...

    • Hogan's phosphorus regulations reflect the nation's best science
      Hogan's phosphorus regulations reflect the nation's best science

      There seems to be a great deal of confusion about what Gov. Larry Hogan's Agriculture Phosphorus Initiative really contains, and I would like to clearly state the facts about how we plan to address phosphorus.

    • A code to teach by
      A code to teach by

      Do you remember your first favorite teacher? I do. She made me feel like I could do anything and that I was destined to make a contribution to this world. I mattered in her class. It would not be until almost 20 years later that I would truly understand what made her great.

    • Netanyahu wants war
      Netanyahu wants war

      The grand spectacle of a foreign leader's address to Congress by the invitation of political opponents is disturbing to say the least. But Benjamin Netanyahu's message was even more disturbing. The Israeli prime minister told the American people Tuesday that their president, along with the...

    • A lifetime spent in service
      A lifetime spent in service

      After 30 years in the Senate and a half-century of public service to Maryland and the nation, Barbara Mikulski will retire from elected politics next year. She will leave a legacy as one of the state's most admired politicians and among the most influential women ever to serve in Congress.

    • Legislation needed to protect foster kids' personal funds
      Legislation needed to protect foster kids' personal funds

      Our state foster care agencies are apparently so underfunded that they are taking resources from abused and neglected children. The agencies are taking control over foster children's Social Security benefits (when the children are disabled or have deceased parents) and using the children's...

    • Contenders for Mikulski's seat
      Contenders for Mikulski's seat

      Political observers in Maryland will soon be treated to a rare phenomenon: a battle royal for an open United States Senate seat.

    • Community development works
      Community development works

      Across the state, local efforts are quietly strengthening Maryland communities.

    Comments
    Loading