Members of the ANC Women’s League protest outside the court in Pretoria. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Oscar Pistorius is not guilty of murdering Reeva Steenkamp, the woman he killed

The South African athlete has been found guilty of culpable homicide, not murder, following the death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. In a world where men kill women and not the other way around, that means justice must bend to the male version of events.

Oscar Pistorius is not guilty of murder. He shot Reeva Steenkamp four times, through a locked bathroom door, with bullets designed to expand and tear and demolish human flesh; but the court in Pretoria found that his crime was culpable homicide (equivalent to manslaughter in English and Welsh law), not murder.

Reeva Steenkamp said she was afraid. “I’m scared of you sometimes and how u snap at me and of how you will react to me,” she wrote to Pistorius in the WhatsApp messages that were presented as evidence during the trial – messages which Judge Thokozile Masipa declared “prove nothing”. “Normal relationships are dynamic and unpredictable sometimes,” said Masipa. And Steenkamp did not predict the actual act of violence that killed her. Nevertheless, her fears were realised. The man she was scared of caused her death. Steenkamp was, ultimately, right to be afraid.

Oscar Pistorius said he was afraid too. His defence was that he believed there was an intruder in his bathroom, and that he shot in self-defence and in defence of Steenkamp (who he knew was in his home at the time). Masipa accepted this account, although – unlike Steenkamp’s fear – it was unsubstantiated. There was no burglar behind that door. There was no threat to Pistorius anywhere in his home, just a woman, a woman he claims he loved, a woman for whom the only grace we can hope is that she was unconscious from her injuries before she knew her boyfriend was delivering her death. His fears count, hers are dismissed.

Of course, Pistorius was on trial, not Steenkamp, so the benefit of reasonable doubt must go in his favour; but in a world where men kill women and not the other way around, that means justice must bend to the male version. South Africa is a frightening place to be female. According to the South African Medical Research Council, in 2009, one woman was killed by a partner every eight hours. Rape Crisis South Africa (RCSA) estimates that more than 500,000 sexual offences are committed each year (although far fewer are ever reported). Every year, 60,000 South African women and children are victims of domestic violence, according to a WHO report.

Perhaps it’s this context that influenced Masipa when she characterised Steenkamp’s fear as part of a “normal relationship”. It would be commonplace, regular, quotidian for women to fear the people most likely to harm them. As Catherine MacKinnon writes: “Acts of violence against women are regarded not as exceptional but inevitable, even banal, in an unexceptional context, hence beyond no pale.” There is another sense of normal, though, when we use it to mean healthy, sane, without pathology. Is it normal in this sense for a woman to cringe at a partner’s “tantrums”? To feel “picked on” and “snapped at”, as Steenkamp said she did in those messages?

Rape Crisis South Africa argues that South African men were traumatised on a national scale by apartheid, which led to “the militarisation of South African male identities”. Black men were brutalised by their oppression, white men were brutalised by their conscription as enforcers of that brutality, and regardless of race, “the home and the intimate lives of men became a battleground for reclaiming power in another sphere”. For Pistorius to kill Steenkamp in the process of confronting an imaginary man is to violently dramatise what happens to women every day, caught in the crossfire of male aggression.

The death of women at the hands of men is not unpredictable (it happens more than twice a week in the UK), yet whenever we are forced to notice it, we are compelled to find it shocking. The alternative to that unconvincing surprise is to admit the unbearable truth: that male violence against women is simply tolerated, not just in South Africa but globallly. If violence is routine, then we cannot be said to live in peacetime; if we do not live in peacetime, then we must live in a war. But because the war of men against women has never been declared, the rules intended to humanise conflicts have never been applied to gender relations.

“If women in everyday life are not formally considered combatants, with combatants’ rights, neither do they effectively receive the benefits the law of war confers on civilians during combat,” writes MacKinnon, adding that: “most men who commit violence against women are legally considered neither soldiers nor criminals, yet often receive the effective impunity that is the benefit of both.” And Oscar Pistorius is not guilty of murdering the woman he killed.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Show Hide image

On civil liberties, David Davis has become a complete hypocrite – and I'm not sure he even knows it

The Brexit minster's stance shows a man not overly burdened with self-awareness.

In 2005, David Davis ran for the Tory leadership. He was widely assumed to be the front-runner and, as frontrunners in Tory leadership campaigns have done so enthusiastically throughout modern history, he lost.

The reason I bring up this ancient history is because it gives me an excuse to remind you of this spectacularly ill-judged photoshoot:

“And you're sure this doesn't make me look a bit sexist?”
Image: Getty

Obviously it’s distressing to learn that, as recently as October 2005, an ostensibly serious politician could have thought that drawing attention to someone else’s boobs was a viable electoral strategy. (Going, one assumes, for that all important teenage boy vote.)

But what really strikes me about that photo is quite how pleased with himself Davis looks. Not only is he not thinking to himself, “Is it possible that this whole thing was a bad idea?” You get the distinct impression that he’s never had that thought in his life.

This impression is not dispelled by the interview he gave to the Telegraph‘s Alice Thompson and Rachel Sylvester three months earlier. (Hat tip to Tom Hamilton for bringing it to my attention.) It’s an amazing piece of work – I’ve read it twice, and I’m still not sure if the interviewers are in on the joke – so worth reading in its entirety. But to give you a flavour, here are some highlights:

He has a climbing wall in his barn and an ice-axe leaning against his desk. Next to a drinks tray in his office there is a picture of him jumping out of a helicopter. Although his nose has been broken five times, he still somehow manages to look debonair. (...)

To an aide, he shouts: “Call X - he’ll be at MI5,” then tells us: “You didn’t hear that. I know lots of spooks.” (...)

At 56, he comes – as he puts it – from “an older generation”. He did not change nappies, opting instead to teach his children to ski and scuba-dive to make them brave. (...)

“I make all the important decisions about World War Three, she makes the unimportant ones about where we’re going to live.”

And my personal favourite:

When he was demoted by IDS, he hit back, saying darkly: “If you’re hunting big game, you must make sure you kill with the first shot.”

All this, I think, tells us two things. One is that David Davis is not a man who is overly burdened with self-doubt. The other is that he probably should be once in a while, because bloody hell, he looks ridiculous, and it’s clear no one around him has the heart to tell him.

Which brings us to this week’s mess. On Monday, we learned that those EU citizens who choose to remain in Britain will need to apply for a listing on a new – this is in no way creepy – “settled status” register. The proposals, as reported the Guardian, “could entail an identity card backed up by entry on a Home Office central database or register”. As Brexit secretary, David Davis is the man tasked with negotiating and delivering this exciting new list of the foreign.

This is odd, because Davis has historically been a resolute opponent of this sort of nonsense. Back in June 2008, he resigned from the Tory front bench and forced a by-election in his Haltemprice & Howden constituency, in protest against the Labour government’s creeping authoritarianism.

Three months later, when Labour was pushing ID cards of its own, he warned that the party was creating a database state. Here’s the killer quote:

“It is typical of this government to kickstart their misguided and intrusive ID scheme with students and foreigners – those who have no choice but to accept the cards – and it marks the start of the introduction of compulsory ID cards for all by stealth.”

The David Davis of 2017 better hope that the David Davis of 2008 doesn’t find out what he’s up to, otherwise he’s really for it.

The Brexit secretary has denied, of course, that the government’s plan this week has anything in common with the Labour version he so despised. “It’s not an ID card,” he told the Commons. “What we are talking about here is documentation to prove you have got a right to a job, a right to residence, the rest of it.” To put it another way, this new scheme involves neither an ID card nor the rise of a database state. It’s simply a card, which proves your identity, as registered on a database. Maintained by the state.

Does he realise what he’s doing? Does the man who once quit the front bench to defend the principle of civil liberties not see that he’s now become what he hates the most? That if he continues with this policy – a seemingly inevitable result of the Brexit for which he so enthusiastically campaigned – then he’ll go down in history not as a campaigner for civil liberties, but as a bloody hypocrite?

I doubt he does, somehow. Remember that photoshoot; remember the interview. With any other politician, I’d assume a certain degree of inner turmoil must be underway. But Davis does not strike me as one who is overly prone to that, either.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

0800 7318496