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12 September 2014

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.

By Sarah Ditum

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?

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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.

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