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.

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

“We want violence against women to stop, and we want men to treat us like equals because we are in the same society and they have to deal with us as human beings,” Women’s League member Patricia Cheune told a local television station during a recent march in Pretoria.

Days before her death, Steenkamp tweeted her support to end violence against women after the brutal gang rape and killing of Anene Booysen, a 17-year-old girl of mixed race. “I woke up in a happy safe home this morning. Not everyone did. Speak out against the rape of individuals,” read Steenkamp’s tweet.

To those unfamiliar with the history of violence in South Africa, the connection between Pistorius and domestic abuse may seem tenuous. To the cynical, it may seem opportunistic on the part of women’s groups, who know that any connection to Pistorius is likely to get news coverage.

But, says gender activist Lisa Vetten, it is not a stretch. South Africa is home to one of the world’s highest rates of what is called “intimate femicide”—the killing of a woman by her partner. In South Africa, it is the leading cause of unnatural death among women. South Africa’s deputy president last year delivered the shocking statistic that 90 percent of South African women have experienced emotional and physical abuse

Vetten told The Root that she was not surprised that many members of the public immediately concluded that abuse was a factor in Steenkamp’s killing.

“Domestic violence is just so thoroughly entrenched and woven in the day-to-day fabric of your life, invisible, mundane. It’s bread and butter for most women,” she said. “If you look at the statistics, this is the most common form of violence that women experience, and it’s the most likely way they are going to die. So domestic violence is a daily reality for most women. If it hasn’t happened to them, they’ve seen it with mothers, they’ve seen it with their sisters, they’ve sat and heard it from their next-door neighbor, they’ve watched it happen in the public—and everybody stands back and does nothing. And that is across the board. Domestic violence is not class-based or race-based in South Africa.”

Vetten says the high rate of domestic abuse may boil down to that old chestnut: apartheid. Black men were oppressed and abused by society and infantilized as “boys”; white men were given an inflated sense of their own importance in society. Both treatments resulted in the same reaction, she says: Men who felt powerless in society tried to right the balance by exercising their authority in the home; men who felt all-powerful in society took that authority home with them.

It should be noted that Pistorius’ fate will be decided by a judge known for her strong stance against domestic abuse. Thokozile Masipa, a former journalist and social worker, became the nation’s second black female judge in 1998. In recent years she has garnered attention for handing down stiff sentences in rape and violence cases.

In 2013 she sentenced a serial rapist to 252 years in prison, the harshest possible penalty since South Africa abolished the death penalty in 1995.

“The worst in my view is that he attacked and molested the victims in the sanctity of their own homes, where they thought they were safe,” she said.