'South African Violence' Only Explains the Pistorius Case If He's Not Guilty

Time's splashy cover story blames Reeva Steenkamp's killing on South Africa's culture. But what if it's the man, not the country, that's the problem?

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Michael Hutchings/Reuters

There's a please-click-thru-six-screens cover story just published by TIME about the shooting, by track athlete Oscar Pistorius, of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius, if you don't know, is a darling. Handsome. Charming ("but with a fiery temper," says The Australian ). And fast, even as a double-amputee -- so fast that in London last year, he became the first Paralympic athlete to compete against able-bodied contenders in an Olympic Games. In a country that "articulates its dreams through sports," Pistorius is, in writer Alex Perry's words, the "latest incarnation of South African hope."

Perry says that you can't understand the Pistorius shooting -- Pistorius denies murder -- if you don't understand Cape Town. And class. And wealth disparity. And race. And sports. And -- of course -- Apartheid.

All of these things combine in Perry's story to explain a privileged white man's fear of an imagined assailant which, according to his defense, led him to shoot his privileged white girlfriend. The only thing that doesn't seem to merit inquiry in this American banner publication -- ironically, published within 24 hours of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act -- is domestic violence.

Any journalist who can spill six screens' worth of ink on the Big Themes of post-truth-and-reconciliation South Africa can fit a quote from the victim's friend -- or a domestic violence specialist -- into the story.

Race, class and politics work differently in different countries. I've no doubt that the intersection of those three with fear is something different than most Americans, who are TIME's intended readership, might understand. I also know, as (even!) Afrikaner friends have put it to me, that these are favorite diversionary topics of Americans: How much easier to talk about other countries' racial violence -- and, now, other countries' domestic violence -- than to talk about our own long history of violence against blacks (or women). To be sure, some of those conversations are necessary and genuine; and just as surely, others are a salve.

But here's something else a lot of Americans understand: When a man kills his partner, anywhere in the world, there's cause for concern. Not just about race, class and politics, but about domestic violence. And not just in foreign countries we categorize as especially violent: In the U.S., domestic violence accounts for more than 20 percent of all violence committed against women.

Pistorius' defense is that he shot her accidentally, thinking she was an intruder. The legal truth is playing out in court. But the defense sounds to many of us, myself included, an awful lot like the abuser's version of, "He didn't hit me, I fell down the stairs."

The South African Police don't consider domestic violence a discrete crime. If you're beaten by your boyfriend in your kitchen, it gets written up as assault, no different than if you were punched by a stranger at a bar. But in a recent study in Gauteng -- South Africa's wealthiest, most densely populated and most cosmopolitan province -- more than 50 percent of women reported experiencing some form of domestic abuse - and more than 75 percent of men admitted to abusing women. That makes it difficult to say what the rates of domestic violence might be in South Africa, but it's impossible to deny, or even to downplay, domestic violence there any longer.

The Pistorius shooting, and the violent rape and murder of 17-year-old Anene Booysen , have fueled the demand for accountability, including a national commission on gender-based violence.

And yet there's only one mention of domestic violence in Perry's piece, and it's at the top, where Perry notes that the murdered woman tweeted on the day of her death: "I woke up in a happy safe home this morning. Not everyone did. Speak out against the rape of individuals."

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Jina Moore is a freelance journalist who covers human rights, women's security, and Africa. She is a New Media Fellow of the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University.

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