If you’ve been following closely the murder case involving Paralympics track star Oscar Pistorius, accused of killing his girlfriend in the middle of the night in Pretoria, South Africa, you probably think you’ve learned all there is to know about the incident.
After all, the international press and any website worth its name is assessing every aspect of the case – from whether the “Blade Runner” was wearing his prosthetic legs when he shot Reeva Steenkamp through a closed bathroom door to juicy rumors about the presence of testosterone and other performance-enhancing drugs in Pistorius’ bedroom. It would seem that there is very little that hasn’t been revealed or gossiped about in this grisly story.
Except one thing that appears to be out of bounds: coverage of the prevalence of violence against women and girls in South Africa by their husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers, relatives and perfect strangers. According to surveys by South Africa’s Medical Research Council (MRC), a health research organization, a stunning 40 percent of South African men have physically struck their partners and one-fourth have raped a woman at some point in their lives.
Last year, the World Health Organization estimated that 60,000 women and children in South Africa are victims of domestic violence every month; that’s 720,000 people a year in a population of 50 million. Moreover, the South African “femicide” rate (that is, the murder of females) amounted to 9.6 per 100,000 women for the years 2004-2009, the fourth-highest rate in the world, according to Small Arms Survey, researchers at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland.
For South African men, “there is an idea that violence is justifiable as a means to keep women in their place,” said Dr. Rachel Jewkes, director of MRC’s Gender & Health Research Unit. “This has not changed in 20 years, and even though the South African murder rate has dropped by 50 percent since 1999, rape figures have not.”
Jewkes blames this on a somewhat odious but deeply inbred characteristic of South African men that crosses racial and demographic boundaries. Among blacks and whites – and rich or poor – the South African masculine image is built on toughness and strength, heterosexuality and controlling women. Ideals of masculinity of black South African men emphasize being tough and strong, pronouncedly heterosexual and able to control women; often, this is epitomized by owning guns and having multiple partners,” she said.
Indeed, Pistorius’ past includes incidents of domestic violence. In 2009, the legless runner who last year in London became the first paraplegic to compete against able-bodied opponents in an Olympics, spent a night in jail after assaulting a 19-year-old girl at his house. And there were reportedly a number of calls to police from Steenkamp alleging physical violence by Pistorius prior to her death.
Pistorius also had an extensive handgun collection. In 2012 alone he reportedly purchased six weapons, including a U.S.-made Smith & Wesson 500 and a South African Mossberg.
With violence against women clearly rampant in South Africa, various governments have taken aim at the problem, at least outwardly.
In 1998, when Nelson Mandela was president of the country, the parliament passed a measure that expanded the definition of domestic violence to encompass physical, sexual, emotional, verbal and economic abuse. But it took almost another decade for South Africa’s legislature to enact the Sexual Offences Act of 2007, which sought to improve the delivery of legal and medical services to victims and to encourage more aggressive investigations of such incidents.
However, these laws have done little to stem the avalanche of crimes against women, in large part because South Africa’s police and courts have neglected to enforce them; instead, they treat domestic violence as a minor crime. Consequently, with few avenues for help – and even a cultural bias in South Africa that women should remain in their relationships no matter what the circumstances – many women don’t bother to report abuse.
“Laws, by themselves, cannot prevent or reduce violence -- especially in the absence of a range of social supports to abused women,” said Lisa Vetten, an independent South African researcher on domestic violence and gender issues. “Across cultures in South Africa pressure is placed on women to remain in their relationships and keep their families together.”
Moreover, according to Jewkes, the only thing that current President Jacob Zuma has done to address the issue is to set up a national council on gender-based violence.
“It is led by a very weak government department and has not been constituted in a way that gives it an ability to establish an evidence-based program of action or in a way that enables it to hold other departments to account,” she said. “Perhaps this will change, but early signs are not promising.”
Consider a particularly grievous – but by no means extraordinary -- example of domestic violence that was reported in The Sowetan newspaper in September 2011: A man named Bossie Phungula admitted he stabbed his wife, Annie, five times, then poured petrol over her body and set her on fire (in their home in front of their children and servant). Annie died four months later from her injuries, but Bossie was released from police custody due to a “lack of evidence.”
Ironically, while clearly women are suffering in the homes of South Africa, in the body politic, women are well represented. Females occupy more than 40 percent of the parliamentary seats in Pretoria, one of the highest such rates in the world. By contrast, Germany’s Bundestag is comprised of about 33 percent women, while the female representation in UK’s House of Commons is only about 23 percent.
And the South African constitution is very progressive regarding equality of the sexes. It includes legal protection for women from discrimination, rape and domestic abuse.
But none of this translates into any real progress in eradicating violence against women. The constitutional safeguards are more than overmatched by the stubborn cultural biases that measure male strength by the weakness of women. And in parliament, when women’s issues are attempted to be raised, the debate quickly turns to gender quotas in the legislature and whether there are too many females in government.
Some in South Africa hope that the massive publicity generated by the Pistorius case will finally bring the problem of violence against women in the country out of the shadows. But that’s not likely.
Like gun control arguments in the United States, female abuse in South Africa tends to finally enjoy some political and public attention after a heinous incident comes to light, only to die away with nothing done about the problem relatively quickly.
That seems about right now as well. Pistorius, who claims that he thought he shot an intruder in his home and not his girlfriend, remains free on bail. Meanwhile, since Steenkamp was killed on Valentine’s Day, another 60.000 women and girls have been violently abused in South Africa – and the global public knows none of their names.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.