South Africa: Pistorius and a script of injustice

Date: October 31, 2014
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Johannesburg, 15 September: The world is abuzz after Judge Thokozile Masipa found Oscar Pistorius not guilty of premeditated murder, but instead guilty of culpable homicide. This judgement renders Pistorius’ actions merely negligent, closer to a mishap than a murder. Many, including Steenkamp’s family, the National Prosecuting Authority and the ANC Women’s League believe her judgement is a miscarriage of justice. The NPA and the state may appeal the conviction after his sentencing on 13 October. Pistorius has been released on bail until then, while Masipa has been offered tighter security.

In the minds of many, Masipa has erred. Women and gender activists are especially disappointed, and rightfully so. However, we cannot and should not expect that because Judge Masipa is a black woman that she should have found him guilty on more counts. If we do, we fall trap to, and perpetuate the very racial prejudice and sexism we are desperately trying to dismantle. For Masipa, her judgement is based on the evidence presented to her as prescribed by South African law. But of course, prejudice abounds and bigots have already jumped on the racist and sexist bandwagon to discredit Masipa.

Masipa’s judgment is nevertheless frustratingly perplexing. She found him guilty of discharging a firearm in public, arguing that whether intentional or not, he was responsible and should have known better since he was trained in handling guns. However, she did not apply the same logic when she found him not guilty of murder. Intruder or Steenkamp behind the door, he shot four bullets through it, knowing full well what those bullets would do. Masipa thus believes that he didn’t mean to kill Steenkamp, he just meant to defend himself from an ‘intruder’ hiding in his locked bathroom. Again, she did not apply that logic when he was cleared of illegal possession of ammunition, because he quite simply did not mean to possess the ammunition in his possession.

What is most disappointing about her judgement is, not only will he serve 15 years or less, but because he is not guilty of murder, his actions are not recognised as an escalation of domestic abuse that culminated in another case of femicide.

The 2012 Medical Research Council (MRC) report Every eight hours: Intimate femicide in South Africa, finds that intimate partner violence is now the leading cause of death of women homicide victims, with 56% of female homicides being committed by an intimate partner. The Gender Links War at Home: Gender Based Violence Indicators, finds that 24% of women in Mauritius, to 54% in SA, right up to 89% of women in Zambia experience some form of violence in their lifetime, while a very similar or greater percentage of men admit to it. Intimate partner violence is the most predominant form of gender violence in this country.

We should never create hierarchies of violence, but we cannot ignore the bases on which violence is perpetrated. As feminist Gloria Steinem says, “As long as one group requires an adjective and another is the central definition of humanity, we are in trouble.” This violence, murder and injustice is committed on the basis of patriarchy, privilege and prejudice all of which create and perpetuate these adjectives. Rejecting this as femicide is akin to denying Gift Makau’s recent rape and murder as a homophobic hate crime. The judgement also reminds me of how the judge who sentenced one of Eudy Simelane’s murderers claimed that her sexuality had no significance in her killing.

Parallel to the uproar over the Pistorius judgement, is the furore over National Football league star Ray Rice and his domestic abuse. However, what is alarming is that ‘men’s rights activists’ are justifying and defending his abuse. Some are even claiming it wasn’t him that knocked her out, but in fact the railing that her head plummeted onto after he pummelled her face with his fist. They claim she aggravated him and he defended himself, also calling people against gender violence “female violence apologists.” At least Rice was suspended from the football league. The International Paralympic Committee on the other hand, will welcome back Pistorius with open arms once he has served his sentence, because the organisation has to “differentiate between sport and his private life.” Of course!

Despite how often it is employed, I’m always incredulous at how rife, trite and ludicrous victim-blaming is. Some friends said I jumped down the throat of a religious man this past weekend, after he suggested that if women wear skirts in India, where culture does not allow it, they can only expect to get raped.

It goes without saying that there is very little justice in the world. It happens every day and perpetrators get away with murder all the time. If the South African Police Service and the government can get away with the Marikana massacre and Zionist Israel can get away with apartheid and genocide, is it really any wonder that Pistorius will get off lightly?

Pistorius, Rice, SAPS and Israel, each guilty of excessive force and who cry self-defence, are all representative of patriarchy and power- and so, wield the capacity to decide who may live, how they live and who should die. They all represent for me, the pendulum swing of the private and public ‘execution’ of Achille Mbembe’s notion of necropower. This notion accounts for “the various ways in which, in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons.”

Adam Steenkamp, Reeva Steenkamp’s brother, described Pistorius’ testimony as a “grotesque pantomime.” Also an apt description of the unjust script that society writes and expects us to co-perform. It reads:

If you’re a women and you aggravate a man, you should expect to get your face pummelled. If you wear a skirt you should expect to get raped. If you strike for a decent living wage you should expect to get shot. If you love or sleep with the same sex and don’t conform to a heteronormative gender identity, like Ebola, you’re a threat to civilisation, and so must be cured or killed. If you have privilege and money, you can get away with almost anything. If you don’t have money and privilege, justice is simply out of your league. If your judgement and opinion is not far enough from the truth, you’re anything from a leftist anarchist, a female-violence apologist, to an anti-Semite or even a CIA agent.

Justice seems a utopian ideal and impunity a vivid reality. It is nothing new. We can only hope that the state appeals and the verdict is overturned. This at least will re-instil some faith in us to help avert our despondency. It may re-energise a continued fight for the millions who have not yet seen justice, lest we set a precedence that breeds necropolitics and a dystopia where the belief in justice, equality and humanism is non-existent.

Katherine V Robinson is the Editor and Communications Manager at Gender Links. She writes in her individual capacity. This article is part of the Gender Links News Service, offering fresh views on everyday news.

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