Pistorius: A Symbol of South Africa’s Gun Problem

In 2013, Oscar Pistorius awoke in his home, picked up a 9mm pistol, and fired four gunshots into a bathroom door, fatally wounding his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Last year, the South African athlete was found guilty of the culpable homicide (analogous to manslaughter) of Steenkamp, but this verdict has been overuled. Following a case made to South Africa’s Supreme Court, Pistorius has been found guilty of murder and as of March 2016 he is unable to appeal this verdict. Pistorius now faces fifteen years in prison, three times that of his previous sentence of five years, much of which could be spent under correctional supervision at his uncle’s home.

Pistorius’ defence in his prior 2014 trial stated that he mistook the person behind the bathroom door for an intruder, not Steenkamp. The defence claimed that not only did Pistorious act in self-defence, he did not expect the apparent intruder behind the door to be badly injured. This absurd claim has finally been overturned. As Justice Eric Leach said as he read the new judgement, “In these circumstances, I have no doubt that in firing the fatal shots the accused must have foreseen that whoever was behind the toilet door might die, but reconciled with that event occurring, and gambled with that person’s life.”

Whether Pistorius pulled the trigger of the gun believing that the person behind the door was Steenkamp or a threat does not mitigate the fact that he committed murder using a dangerous weapon. Even though the new ruling sends the message that South Africa will not overlook reckless use of guns, Pistorius has become a symbol of South Africa’s issues with weapons.

South Africa has the second highest rate of gun related deaths in the world. Around 49 people are murdered in South Africa every day. There are currently around 1.8 million registered gun owners in South Africa, which has an adult population of roughly 38 million. However, illegal firearms are more commonplace in poorer communities. South Africa’s gun history traces back to the apartheid era. Since the 1960s some anti-apartheid liberation movements such as the Spear of the Nation took up arms, often stating that they acted in response to the apartheid authorities encouraging white people to protect themselves against ‘die swart gevaar’ (‘the black threat’).

Since apartheid ended, this pattern of feeling threatened and retailating continues to encourage gun ownership in the name of self-defence. Pistorius’ claim that he believed Steenkamp was an intruder hits a nerve in South Africa, which has an exceptionally high rate of break-ins, rapes, and sexual assaults. This culture of violence and fear coalesces around figures like Pistorius. Leach commented that the Pistorius case ‘involves a human tragedy of Shakespearean proportions’, but he might as well have been describing the cycle of fear and violence in South Africa, which is unlikely to end until more efforts are made to quell the country’s crime rates.

Billie Mills-Pullan

Image courtesy of Associated Press 

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