The trial of Oscar Pistorius, more than most events in South Africa’s recent history, has shone a huge spotlight on crime, the culture of gun possession, and violence – more so gender-based violence – in the country’s post-apartheid era. Our Johannesburg correspondent Pusch Commey – a laywer himself – reports on the infamy the trial has thrown right into the soul of the nation.
The massive global media interest in the celebrity trial of former para-Olympic posterboy Oscar Pistorius, and his eventual conviction for a lesser charge of “culpable homicide” (manslaughter) has been one of the biggest stories of the year. But the facts on the ground are even bigger than that.
South Africa has the unenviable reputation of being among the most violent countries on earth. It is not immediately apparent on the streets, but the statistics can be frightening. Crime statistics for 2013 that involved violence recorded 16,259 murders, 66,387 sexual offences, 16,363 attempted murders, 185,893 assaults with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, 172,909 common assaults, 105,888 robberies with aggravating circumstances, and 53,540 common robberies.
This is despite a population of 52 million and a police force of about 200,000 officers and 1,132 police stations. Besides this, the statistics reflect reported crime but anecdotal evidence alleges that most crime goes unreported.
The famous athlete’s version of events, when he shot his girlfriend at night, was that he fired impulsively at a door, thinking there was an intruder inside the bathroom. He lived in a high security complex, complete with electric fences and security guards. In the suburb he lived in, the streets are controlled by boom gates manned by security personnel.
He had a home-security system with an alarm. And yet he kept a gun under his pillow. He did not hesitate to shoot in his paranoia. In fact it was a question of shoot first and ask questions later. Unfortunately the alleged intruder turned out to be his girlfriend, whom he thought was still in bed.
Bizarre as the story may sound, the court leaned towards his version of events after having evaluated the evidence.
Is that how people live in South Africa? It is yes and no. The crime rate is unacceptable but the huge majority live without any form of security, except a reliance on the overburdened police service. But for those who can afford to pay, there is a massive private security industry, some going by names such as ADT, FBI, and Tactical Reaction.
For monthly subscriptions they patrol affluent neighbourhoods, and respond to alarm systems at the press of a button. In fact, private security is among the fastest growing industries in South Africa.
And as criminals often break into houses armed with guns and dangerous objects, rich people keep guns at home. The flip side is that the criminals sometimes come into homes looking for money and guns. There have been several incidents of police officers being attacked and killed for their service pistols, which were later used in robberies.