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.”
“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.
In 2009 she slapped a policeman with a life sentence for killing his wife during an argument. Her words in this case are chilling—and not a far cry from the activists’ demand that abusers should “rot in jail.”
“No one is above the law,” she said. “You deserve to go to jail for life because you are not a protector. You are a killer.”
A. Hawes is a Johannesburg-based journalist who has covered Africa for a number of years and previously covered Iraq and Afghanistan.