The South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius shooting and killing his girlfriend seems to be the only news out of that country these days. Nothing else seem to matter. Even Usain Bolt was asked his opinion during what seemed like an interview to promote a brand on CNN. Bolt declared himself “shocked.” Shocking. There’s also the ridiculous: Femi Fani Kayode, a former Nigerian government minister, —in a rambling Facebook post—blamed Steenkamp for her own murder. Pistorius, Kayode claimed, “was provoked into a murderous rage by his pretty little lover (who) played on his insecurities and inadequacies.” Steenkamp was a “creature from the sea” sent by the devil. Okay? Incidentally Kayode was indicted for money laundering last week.
Yesterday, in court, in a statement read by his defence lawyer, Pistorius explained how it was all a horrible accident, and that he fired his gun in self-protection:
It filled me with horror and fear of an intruder or intruders being inside the toilet. I thought he or they must have entered through the unprotected window. As I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable, I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself.
As this statement was read, Pistorius’ “whole body shook and he wept uncontrollably,” writes David Smith in The Guardian. The magistrate presiding over the case, Desmond Nair, became part of the ongoing drama, currying sympathy for Pistorius. Nair interrupted the court’s proceedings to give the athlete time to compose himself, because his “compassion as a human being does not allow me to just sit here.”
We’re not sure where this case is going, but based on Twitter after the first day of Oscar’s bail hearing, we couldn’t mind wondering whether it was correct to summarize the media coverage (and circus) around Oscar Pistorius thus: first they believed him, then they discovered his “dark side”, now they believe him again because he sobs in court.
While there was much scrutiny about Pistorius’ past, and hand-wringing about “how could we have missed the signs” (especially given that there was a past record of a domestic violence incident in Pistorius’ past) there was an equal–though very different–spike in interest about the woman he stands accused of shooting dead. In the US, this all reminds us about/mirrors the same sort of prurient scrabble for the hopefully-scandalous details of Nicole Brown Simpson’s life.
During the short period that has passed between the 14th of February, when police arrived at Pistorius’ home to discover Steenkamp’s body, and the 19th, when Pistorius was formally charged with the murder, most tabloids here in the US and in Britain have used every opportunity to run photo spreads of a half-naked Steenkamp–she was a model after all, and often posed in bikinis.
South Africa’s public broadcaster, the SABC, then aired a reality TV show in which Steenkamp appeared–Tropika Island of Treasure, a sort of competitive Fantasy Island/Survivor project that was shot in Jamaica–of which she was said to be “proud.” The show’s executive producer, Samantha Moon, told the South African Mail & Guardian that going ahead with the show “is what she would have wanted,” not letting a little thing like lack of clairvoyance into a dead person’s mindset get in the way. Furthermore, Steenkamp’s family apparently approved the decision to air the show, according to other media outlets:
“We felt that it was important for people to know that there was more to the narrative of Reeva than an exceptionally beautiful girl in a bikini, that she was strong and vibrant and funny and lovely and that this is a tragedy on an unspeakable level,” Moon explained.
We agree that Steenkamp may have been proud of her last job, and that she undoubtedly worked hard to maintain the contrived shape demanded of those asked to commodify their bodies. Steenkamp, from all reports, sounds like a savvy professional with strong family support–she was hardly an exploited, powerless person. But it did look unseemly that while we spoke blithely of the commodification of women’s bodies, and the relationship of such commodification to gender-based violence, we were simultaneously treated to images of Steenkamp’s participation in the industry that commodifies women’s bodies. In any case: we won’t belabor what’s wrong with those tabloids’ and SABC’s decision. We’d suggest you read Marina Hyde and Paul Harris separate op-eds on The Guardian’s website.
At some point last week it turned out Moon’s company was charging news outlets “$3,000 each to broadcast a short clip from the television show–with at least a dozen networks buying rights.” Some South African news sites have been rubbing their hands with glee at the spike in traffic that the story brings.
Until he was accused of murder, Pistorius was an idealized figure–a product in an exciting, innovative package that everyone from Nike to South Africa’s government, its boosters and the country’s people were only happy to use as a symbol of triumph against adversity. One of the more outrageous attempts at branding Pistorius has been to read him as some kind of stand-in for South Africa’s current state, and to construct his journey to one that equaled Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom. Britain’s Sunday Times (in an article reprinted by the New York Post) even invented a status for him: “In South Africa, where he is placed on a pedestal alongside leading figures of the apartheid struggle, making him one of the few whites to straddle the racial divide …” To their credit, most South Africans find this notion–equating Mandela with Pistorius–a ridiculous proposition.
Post murder charge, the usual suspects were rounded up to help support these claims. The Independent trotted out the journalist John Carlin, who is much responsible for the “Invictus” myth associated with South African rugby and sports’ supposed role in the political transition. (Carlin’s book on the 1995 Rugby World Cup served as the basis for Clint Eastwood’s movie.) Carlin, whose piece is really about Pistorius’ loss of reputation, positions Pistorius as a Mandela-cure for the dystopia and malaise of the 2000s, but concludes Pistorius, like Shakespeare’s Othello, is only capable of bestial deeds in the end. To top it off, Carlin’s piece was accompanied by a snapshot of Pistorius with Francois Pienaar, the captain of that 1995 rugby team idolized in Carlin’s book.
Another storyline has been to suggest Pistorius’ actions are understandable given exceptionally high crime rates in South Africa. He acted out of self-defense, like anyone would–perhaps his girlfriend had surprised him at his home. But by this past weekend, it had already emerged that his girlfriend was not an intruder that Pistorius shot at in order to protect himself, and that neighbors had heard them quarrel earlier that evening before the shooting.
In South Africa, Pistorius was largely lauded. There is and will be much scrutiny about Pistorius’ past, and hand-wringing about “how could we have missed the signs?” But there were ample, and very public signs of his win-or-rage attitude. First, there were tabloid reports hinting of his ‘other’ nature and his ‘wandering eye’ (an interview with a former girlfriend). But being sexually promiscuous is hardly an indication of violence–in that case, call a large percentage of our students (both women and men) violent. There were also real clues about Pistorius’ violent nature–from a previous charge of assault on a woman, from not so long ago.
Then, at 2012’s Paralympics, Pistorius threw a tantrum when he lost the 200m to a Brazilian sprinter, Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira. Convinced that the longer running blades Oliveira used was the reason he won, Pistorius called for the International Paralympic Committee to investigate. Although he was usually seen as the gracious man who said, “Don’t focus on the disability … focus on the ability,” in his post-race interview, he furiously told TV cameras, “we aren’t racing a fair race.” He seemed oblivious to similar charges leveled at him by ‘able-bodied’ athletes. In order to defend his competitive behavior, and to fashion Pistorius as a spokesperson for egalitarian treatment, several reports rehashed apocryphal stories about how his mother famously treated him the ‘same’ as she did his brother. He remembers these instances when asked about why he pushed himself so hard:
…to underline his no-nonsense attitude to his disability was his mother’s instructions to him and his older brother Carl when they were getting ready to play one day as children: “You, put your shoes on. And you, put your legs on.” “That was disability as I saw it,” [Pistorius] said.
Ultimately, journalists excused his behavior at the Paralympics as the stuff of “real rivalry.” The hero-making rhetoric entered to re-fashion Pistorius’ ugly response as something that could advance the cause of Paralympians–it became an opportunity to review our stereotypes: we needed to see paralympians as athletes who are just as crazily competitive as ‘able-bodied’ athletes–so stop patronizing them as people who enter competitive sport just to be nice.
After it became clear that Pistorius had shot and killed Steenkamp, many journalists began referring to a January 2012 New York Times piece by Michael Sokolov that reported the extent to which Pistorius was obsessed with guns, and the possibilities offered to Pistorius in an inherently unequal society. Sokolov points out:
But [Pistorius] also comes from a nation with a breathtaking gulf between rich and poor, and if he had been born on the wrong side of that, into the abject poverty in which many of his countrymen still live, it is impossible to imagine him having the resources to have prevailed over his bad luck.
However, in Sokolov’s article, the only piece known for being even mildly critical of Pistorius, there are sections that give a reader clues about how foreign journalists often misread the athlete. Even the insights linking the privileges created by apartheid that helped someone like Pistorius get where he did, as well as his frank discussion of Pistorius’ gun-obsessions are tainted by Sokolov’s own misreadings of South Africa, whiteness, and how Pistorius encounters, engages with, and enjoys his privilege–all the while speaking the right words about being aware of the poverty and lack of access to the millions hop and a skip away.
For example: when Pistorius speaks a smattering of the “local languages,” and calls guards at the gate “my brother,” Sokolov takes these mundane exchanges as a sign of his great charitable heart, his desire for egalitarian society. As anyone in Southern or East Africa might know, many Africans of European descent, whose families have been there for generations (five, in Pistorius’ case), often speak fluently in a ‘local’ language. Sometimes that fluency is due to true amalgamation with locality. At others, we’ve seen familiarity with a local language as an entryway into the lives of one’s household or jobsite staff–a madam of a fancy household knows what the kitchen maid is muttering under her breath to the gardener, removing that minor level of privacy and subversive space afforded to those in colonially-created subversive spaces.
But mostly, Africans of largely European descent in South Africa may speak a smattering of Zulu or Xhosa: a bit of a greeting, a passing remark, all of which is thrown out to signal familiarity, as ceremonial signal of brotherhood and belonging. No one on the receiving end of a random ‘Hello how are you’ in Xhosa will believe that such an act is an indication and recognition of mutuality … no one, that is, other than a foreign correspondent.
Sokolov did get something right: he was the first to call attention to Pistorius’ level of interest in guns, and the amount of confidence they seemed to impart to him. Pistorius’ father is still busy defending his son–it is a defence built on South Africa’s particular brand of masculinity that creates a mythology around ‘sportsmen’, coupled with the heightened dangers posed for the colonial in the postcolony. In the Telegraph, he stressed that ‘sportsmen’ are exceptional, and that South Africa creates exceptional conditions:
“When you are a sportsman, you act even more on instinct,” he said. “It’s instinct – things happen and that’s what you do.”
“When you wake up in the middle of the night – and crime is so endemic in South Africa – what do you do if somebody is in the house? Do you think it’s one of your family? Of course you don’t,” he said.
When Sokolov’s observations are coupled with recent academic work on white South African masculinity–research that traces the way that manhood was historically built on a foundation that stressed the colonial male’s role in protecting family against marauding natives and on providing meat–a lot more becomes clear.
South Africa’s particular brand of white masculinity depends on guns, perpetuating the fear of native threat, hunting (even if only for display), and ensuring that women stay pretty and in their proper place. Mama, papa, boarding school, rugby, and the weekend braai are centred on fashioning generation after generation of this Man’s Man, and the adoring, complicit girlfriend and wife are just as much part of it–despite the violent tendencies such adoration and adulation inevitably nurtures. This somewhat problematic article in The Guardian says as much, despite Alex Duval Smith’s idiotic choice of quote for something as sensitive and important as the relationship between race, masculinity-construction, and domestic violence in South Africa:
“Black South African men are expected to prove their manliness by carrying knives and having lots of girlfriends,” said Rachel Jewkes of the South African Medical Research Council. “White Afrikaners like Pistorius do not need to have several girlfriends. But his love of guns speaks to the same hunger to prove his masculinity in the South African context.”
We’ll leave the SMH to you over the first part of this quote (don’t just as large a percentage of white South African men–openly or secretly–subscribe to the same culture of having several sexual partners as proof of their manhood and, in fact, carry knives around?), and Duval Smith’s lack of commentary on it (she’s usually on point).
However, yes: Pistorius’ dependence on firearms, and the amount of confidence they seemed to impart to him was as indicative of the level of hyper-masculinity on which South African gender roles are built. And the pressure to display macho-ness could also have been exaggerated in Pistorius–his desire to display mastery over his domain, his aggression, and his special dependence on guns speaks volumes about overcompensating for a disability, of which he was not permitted to speak or allowed to acknowledge.
* Sean Jacobs contributed to this post.