Crime knows no race

2013-02-24 10:00

Media coverage of Oscar Pistorius and the slain Reeva Steenkamp has reflected deeply racialised and gendered attitudes to sexual violence, especially when compared to the coverage of Anene Booysen’s rape, mutilation and murder a few weeks ago.

Part of our national narrative is that when white people murder and rape one another, there is usually a complex human story to explain their behaviour.

Typically, white violence is seen as exceptional; it is depicted by the media as aberrational rather than as part of broader social patterns and processes.

When black people rape or murder, their acts are often portrayed as evidence of some intrinsic flaw in their nature or, more benignly, but equally insidiously, as indicators of some sort of collective damage.

While there is no denying that crime, and violent crime in particular, is higher in poor and disenfranchised communities than in middle class and elite neighbourhoods, it is also true that gender-based violence cuts across race and class, and is notoriously underreported.

It is also under-researched among whites in South Africa.

This means that if there is any group that needs to be talked about in a collective sense in the South African context, it is men. Not black men, not white men. Not rich or poor – all of them.

In a nation of extremes, Anene Booysen and Reeva Steenkamp were as different as two women could be.

Anene was raised in a foster home and had few options. She didn’t finish school, and had just secured a job as a security guard before she was killed, seemingly by her ex-boyfriend and a gang of his friends.

The brutal way she died was shocking, even in a country as numbed to violence as ours.

But the reality is her death at the hands of her ex-boyfriend was not a statistical anomaly.

As a Medical Research Council study reported last year, 57% of female homicides in South Africa were by women’s intimate partners.

Reeva came from a privileged background.

She had a law degree, modelling contracts and options. She was not supposed to die on Valentine’s Day at the hands of her boyfriend. And yet, just like Anene, she did.

When you compare statements in the press about both deaths it is clear there are major differences in how the two women have been discussed.

In the case of Reeva, reporting has focused on the tragedy of Pistorius’ rise and fall.

By narrating the events as though Pistorius is the main character (and perversely also the primary victim), the country has explained his behaviour as an individual act, rather than embedded in social norms entitling men to abuse women, and when “sufficiently provoked”, to take their lives.

In the case of Anene, after her murder was reported the MEC for safety and security in the Western Cape appealed to young people not to go out with people they don’t know.

The fact that most women are killed by someone they know seemed not to register with the MEC, who, given his portfolio, should have known better.

Similarly, in these pages, the editor suggested Anene’s upbringing may have had something to do with the fact that she was out late at night (City Press, February 10).

Ferial Haffajee worried aloud that this generation’s problems include the fact that they have been allowed to “run wild”.

The inference was that if Anene had not been on the street that night she may not have been raped.

The chilling reality is the murderer would probably have killed her at another point.

Violence by intimate partners usually escalates over time. A death seldom happens the first time a man strikes a woman.

The differences between how Anene and Reeva lived are as stark as the difference in how their deaths were covered by the press.

Yet they both stand as a painful reminder of the work required to end violence against women in communities everywhere.

Pretending this is a problem of poverty alone denies the deeply rooted notions of manhood that cut across race and class.

And pretending we can talk about violence against women without talking about white and black feminities and masculinities will get us nowhere.

»Msimang is a commentator on social and political affairs, and Botha is responsible for media relations at Sonke Gender Justice Network

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