World Photos·Analysis

Oscar Pistorius trial speaks to South Africa's 'language of violence'

Fear is a billion dollar industry in today's South Africa, Margaret Evans reports. And it is also on trial in the sensational case of Paralympian Oscar Pistorius.

Sensational trial is also putting South Africa's legacy of apartheid-era fears on the stand

Oscar Pistorius places his head in his hands as he listens to the cross examination during his trial in court in Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday March 13, 2014. Pistorius is charged with the shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentines Day in 2013. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, Pool) (Themba Hadebe/The Associated Press)

At a restaurant in Johannesburg's posh Parktown suburb, two heavily made up blond women are more than happy to share their views on the Oscar Pistorius trial. 

"Of course he's guilty!" said one, sipping a glass of white wine. "No woman would EVER lock the door of the toilet if she was staying over at her boyfriends," added her friend.

Watch Margaret Evan's documentary on the Pistorius trial, "The Industry of Fear," tonight on the National.

About an hour's drive to the north in the sprawling black township of Atteridgeville, women are also happy to comment on the trial as they have their hair done in a tiny tin shack, a lazy electronic beat thudding through the narrow streets. They, too, think Oscar Pistorius is guilty.

It's clear that the Pistorius trial has been a great equalizer in South Africa.

The blade-runner's fall from grace and his very public trial has found its way into every corner of this country. Everyone is watching it, no matter age, colour or class.

There's even a television channel devoted entirely to the trial.

On the other hand, it exposes to the bone the deep divisions and inequalities that still plague South Africa.

The ladies in the township for instance are quick to add that if Pistorius were a poor black man, he would already be in jail. And they're probably right.

Probing South Africa's psyche

For all its salacious, rubber-necking draw, the trial of Oscar Pistorius for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, digs deep into the psyche of some of South Africa's darkest fears and suspicions. 

Pistorius's lawyers have spent a fair bit of time focusing on the athlete's state of mind when he was growing up.

The Paralympian testified that he grew up in a household fearful of intruders, his mother sleeping with a gun beneath her pillow.

Some South African commentators saw this as a not so subtle attempt to conjure up old apartheid-era attitudes on the part of white South Africans, the fear of the "dark intruder" leading to a circle-the-wagons mentality in the face of a perceived external danger.

Rudi Visagie, once a famous South African rugby player, mistook his daughter for a thief ten years ago. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

Ten years ago, another famous athlete, Rudi Visagie, mistook his 19-year-old daughter, Marlé, for a car thief and shot her in the back of the head as she tried to drive away from their farm in the early hours of the morning to surprise her boyfriend on his birthday.

You know what I could have done is put that same pistol against me head said, 'Well I can't go through this. I don't know how to.'- Rudi Visagie, who fatally shot his daughter after mistaking her for a thief 

Visagie played rugby for South Africa's Springboks in the 1980s, and, today, sitting with his wife, Frieda, he says he's only able to talk about what happened because of his deep faith.

The pain and confusion of what happened still flickers across his broad face.

"You know what I could have done is put that same pistol against my head and said 'Well I can't go through this. I don't know how to.'

"And I would have done that, but luckily I knew I had a backup and my Father [could] help me through this whole situation."

Visagie says he had taken his gun out of the safe because a neighbour had been killed in a home invasion about a month earlier. They no longer keep a gun in the house, but they say the accident hasn't changed their attitudes about guns.

"I think you do need them", says Frieda. "But I think what people do in South Africa is too quick to pull out the pistol or a weapon to shoot."

The Visagies insist that this fear that is running through South Africa isn't paranoia, or prejudice.

"In this area where we stay we've got a lot of neighbours that are black and they are locked in as well," says Frieda. "Everybody's scared lately."

Fear is an industry

Fear is a billion dollar industry in South Africa. There are 9,000 security companies in South Africa competing for the chance to sell you peace of mind. Registered security guards outnumber police here by nearly two to one.

Ian Loupser is a former police officer who manages security in the same kind of gated community that Oscar Pistorius lived in, the modern day equivalent of the laager, the circling of wagons at the end of a day's journey.

These communities are fitted out with infrared cameras, electric fences, biometric ID, armed response teams, the works.

But if Pistorius is to be believed, none of that was enough to calm his anxieties.

"Fear sometimes is more perceived than it really is, especially in estates like these," says Loupser. "Your statistical chances of becoming a victim of violent crime, I don't think it's nearly as high as people would like to make it out to be."

For some observers, like Justice Malala, one of South Africa's best known political commentators, Pistorius's defence strategy has been to "put South Africa on trial"

"He was basically saying this is a lawless country, this is a place where the law enforcement agencies are falling apart and I had to have a gun. I could have died any minute now."

Malala has himself been a victim of crime in his own home in an upscale suburb, attacked and shot at. His car has been stolen.

In Johannesburg drivers rarely stop at red-lights after 10 p.m. for fear being car-jacked.

But as Malala points out, most crime in South Africa still takes place far away from the wealthy suburbs.

"There's another world out there and that's a world that Oscar Pistorius didn't speak about," he says.

The language of violence

What Malala is talking about is the world of Pinky Buthelezi and the other women in the Atteridgeville hair salon.

Women in the township of Atteridgeville discuss the Pistorius trial as they get their hair done. They said that if Pistorius was black, he would already be in jail. (Margaret Evans/CBC )

There are an average of 45 murders a day in South Africa, and the majority occur in the townships.

Many women living here say they're afraid to walk alone even in the daytime. Domestic violence is rife, many victims feeling unable to report it.

"Like me," says Buthelezi. "At first I believed that if I went to the police to report [my husband] … he's going to be locked up. Who's gonna help me with the kids? No one. So I just keep quiet."

Buthulezi says she also has a son who is addicted to drugs and regularly steals from her.

There aren't many – if any -- security companies operating in the townships. Neighbourhood watch – some say vigilante – groups are a more common way of fighting crime here.

"Sometimes you wake up in the morning and you find out somebody has been killed on the street," says Buthelezi. "You don't know who killed that person. So it's not easy."

South African men are very fluent in the grammar of violence. How do you undo that psychological hangover?- Eusebius McKaiser, author and talk show host 

Eusebius McKaiser is an author and talk show host who calls violence the 12th official language of South Africa.

"South African men are very fluent in the grammar of violence," he says. "How do you undo that psychological hangover?"

McKaiser points to incidents like the Marikana massacre two years ago when members of the South African police opened fire on unarmed striking miners as one example. (Later, police admitted to planting weapons near the victims' bodies.)

CBC cameraman Richard Devey gets a shot of the South African sunrise while filming Margaret Evans documentary on the Pistorius case, "The Industry of Fear," which will air on The National Wednesday, May 14. (Margaret Evans/CBC )

"The inherent nature of the apartheid government was to use violence as a language with which to speak and engage black South Africa," McKaiser says. "In turn, organizations like the ANC used violence as a means of pushing back.

"We used violence in the communities to deal with sellouts. We then used violence in our homes."

Whether the Pistorius trial and the airing of some of these undercurrents will do much to change South African's relationship with crime and violence remains to be seen.

But it is probably deserving of a much deeper discussion than it has been afforded so far because fear -- whether real or imagined -- is being allowed to shape society here. And the Pistorius trial is playing directly to that fear. 


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.


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