Why Black South African Women Are Protesting at the Oscar Pistorius Trial

The slaying of his white girlfriend has kindled an unlikely kinship that’s calling attention to the high rates of domestic violence.

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Protesters outside Pretoria's North Gauteng High Court on the opening day of South African Paralympian star Oscar Pistorius' murder trial, March 3, 2014

ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

As Oscar Pistorius faces trial for murder, a large group of South African women have become like a shadow that the runner seems unable to shake.

In this notoriously violent country, a vocal group of women, most of them black, say they believe Pistorius’ girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp was a victim of an all-too-common crime, one that crosses all social and racial boundaries: domestic violence.

Violence against women is stunningly common in South Africa, where a woman is killed every eight hours by her intimate partner, according to a recent study by the well-respected Medical Research Council.

No one doubts that Pistorius killed his girlfriend of three months—the sprinter admitted to the shooting in a sworn affidavit just days after the incident on Feb. 14, 2013. He claims he mistook her for an intruder and did not mean to shoot her four times through a locked bathroom door. The prosecution argues that he knew she was behind the door, and that he meant to kill her.

The suggestion that Pistorius, the famous double amputee whose carbon-fiber blades on the track earned him the moniker “Blade Runner,” may have abused his girlfriend has forged an unlikely kinship in a society still fractured around racial lines. Black women have marched regularly outside the Pretoria courthouse where Pistorius’ bail hearing was held in February 2013. 

The women, bolstered by the most powerful women’s group in the country, the Women’s League of the ruling African National Congress, say they will continue to march throughout his trial, which began this week and is expected to last at least three weeks and may even stretch for months.

The group of women who gathered on the crowded sidewalk during Pistorius’ bail hearing said they did not know Pistorius or Steenkamp. He lives in an exclusive and wealthy community in Pretoria. Steenkamp rose from modest beginnings in the seaside town of Port Elizabeth to grace the cover of fashion magazines.

Most of the protesters were older black women who took a bus or walked to the court in central Pretoria. In this still-fractured and racially divided society, where the average white household earns six times more than the average black household (pdf), their paths would rarely have crossed.

Demonstrators have previously carried signs outside his court hearings, with messages like, “No violence against women" and "No to killing of women and children."

Those messages, they said, were for him—along with another, more targeted one: “Pistorius must rot in jail.”

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