Two mainstream media companies have turned the Oscar Pistorius case into an opportunity to ruminate on the perils of post-white rule.
Time magazine and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) have both in their recent coverage used Pistorius’s defence to weigh in on the South African “culture of violence”. It is notable that these media companies have their roots in countries forged through violent processes of colonialism at about the time when the colony that became South Africa was being settled, also through violence.
In contrast to South Africa, the settlers in Australia and the United States largely managed to obliterate the indigenous people who occupied those lands. When South Africa shifted into an intensified mode of white domination called apartheid, the US and Australia were slowly letting go of their own schemes of white domination, partly due to resistance by African Americans, the descendants of imported African slaves (US), or to the indigenous people having been thoroughly vanquished (Australia).
Agitators for social justice in those countries have struggled over decades to combat white supremacism and its effects. But, while outright racism still exists, it has been augmented with more insidious forms of racist discrimination. The result is that black people in those countries still bear the brunt of socio-economic deprivation, as a cursory glance at the human development indicators for Aboriginal people and African American and Native American people in Australia and the US, respectively, would show.
Perhaps one should therefore not be surprised that Australian and US media purveyors of dominant messages would latch onto Pistorius’s improbable account of what happened on February 14 in his luxury security complex when he killed Reeva Steenkamp.
The undisputable facts of the case are that a man killed a woman at home. It exemplifies a particular crime trend: most women who die from homicide in South Africa, die at the hands of an intimate partner. This happens every eight hours in this country.
Rather than focusing on the facts of the case, Time and ABC have opted for the “black peril” story — as the Time.com video puts it, against a visual backdrop of black male protestors and squatter huts, “white fear of a black menace”. This is derived from the claims of Pistorius’s legal team, which is insisting — obviously — that he was acting defensively.
Instead of telling the multitude of stories of perpetrators within homes, male criminals within families who end lives in enactments of a masculinity predicated on domination, especially Time tells its readers about the criminal “out there”. It is a racialised criminal, the black threat to harmonious white living.
Time and ABC’s combinations of facts and images conjure a white man’s burden, as per Pistorius’s defence: he has to fend for his home and “his family” against the murderous (black) man “out there”.
The ABC news insert nods in the direction of facts on femicide but still arrives at a crude racial conclusion. A voice-over by “correspondent Ginny Steyn” declares: “While it is assumed that poverty is the cause of much violence, Pistorius’s case shows in South Africa violent crime is not limited to the poor or only committed by impoverished blacks against wealthy whites.”
The assumption of the unnamed, all-knowing (white) surveyor of crime is poor+black=violent — an assumption momentarily interrupted by Pistorius’s killing of Steenkamp. Why suggest that criminals are black and victims are white when poor people and black people are victims of violent crime on a daily basis?
Why suggest that whiteness and wealth are opposites to violence, with Steenkamp’s murder as mere aberration, when a number of outrageous post-apartheid instances of gender and race-based violence and violations have been perpetrated by white men? Think Waterkloof Four, Reitz Four, Skielik shooter Johan Nel and Mark Scott-Crossley from Hoedspruit. At least two court cases are currently in progress: Johan Kotze from Modimolle and Johan de Jager from Kraaifontein.
The Time article, purporting to make its readers “understand South Africa”, trots out reams of statistics about race, poverty, gun homicides, burglary (“the most feared crime”) and Gauteng (“where Pistorius lives”), as a concentration point for these elements. South Africa’s staggering femicide figure remains the unmentionable.
Steenkamp’s body is used one more time to sensationalise the opening lines of the article with direct references to the wounds she suffered — apart from that, the Time article is all about the long-suffering but ever vigilant white man (“Man, Superman, Gunman”, as the cover proclaims).
In the Time.com video promoting the magazine article on Pistorius, the editor of Time International, Jim Frederick, states that South Africa is “a place where crime is really very rampant”, with an image of a squatter camp shown at that moment. He then alleges, without reference to evidence: “especially whites are taking up arms to defend themselves”.
He further declares that Pistorius “thought there was an intruder in his home which, if you look at the violent history or the violent culture of Africa, without making any claim one way or another, is at least a plausible claim”. The images that flash during this statement are of black male protestors with a burning vehicle and a burning building behind them.
Frederick’s disclaimer is rendered void as Time’s whole take on Steenkamp’s murder is based on Pistorius’s defence. His claim is “plausible” due to the “violent culture” of some amorphous entity called “Africa”. This cliché erases history (“Africa”=violent, finish and klaar) and, along with the decontextualised images, effectively suggest black=violence=chaos. This is what the lone but righteous white man is up against in his biologically programmed quest to defend himself and his possessions (read: girlfriend).
No questions are asked about the kind of masculinity that Pistorius was egged on to represent. The sickening irony of his sponsor Nike’s advertisement calling him “the bullet in the chamber”, with the sound of a gun being cocked, passes unnoticed.
Contrast this treatment of the violent white man with the outcry following Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities Lulu Xingwana’s statement to ABC that “young Afrikaner men are brought up in the Calvinist religion believing that they own a woman, they own a child, they own everything and therefore they can take that life because they own it”.
The Afrikanerbond, AfriForum and Freedom Front Plus are incensed at Xingwana’s appraisal of the reasons for femicide and family murders, for which Afrikaners have historically been notorious. Indeed, so incensed that they have momentarily forgotten to pretend to represent anything but white Afrikaner masculinist interests.
Journalists also climbed in to get their pound of flesh: “loopy Lulu”, one article trumpeted. Xingwana’s statements throughout the years, whether you agree with her or not, every now and again exhibited a measure of political analysis not to be found in the many discriminatory statements made by President Jacob Zuma. No one is calling him “zany Zuma”, though.
But it is easy to lambast black women. They have after all the least social power in this society of ours. (Witness the responses to Mamphela Ramphele’s plans to start a new political party. Not even Mbhazima Shilowa was subjected to such vitriol, despite mostly destroying what could have been a significant opposition party.)
The reactions to Xingwana’s utterance (eg it is “an extreme verbal attack on the integrity of Afrikaners” and “a sign of religious intolerance”) suggest that Afrikaner men and religious doctrine are both above criticism.
Given the widely promoted predilection for forgetting, we have forgotten that a particular interpretation of Calvinism underpinned the Christian nationalism that drove the project of apartheid. Moreover, as theologian Christina Landman has written, “local Calvinism was as sexist as it was racist” (see an excerpt from the article here).
This local form of Calvinism, which still grips gender relations in Afrikaner families, dictates that “part of the salvation of the soul was the subordination of the female body to male rule, both in intimate spaces and the church”, as Landman finds. This explains resurgent collaborations between Afrikaner women and men to reinstall “the Afrikaner man” as “king and priest” of the household, as currently promoted in congregations such as Moreleta Park Dutch Reformed Church.
While Xingwana is condemned, the same critics fall over their feet to defend white Afrikaner men — the group that benefited most from apartheid. Their manoeuvres dovetail nicely with Time’s efforts at deflecting culpability in the Pistorius case away from masculinity and onto blackness.
Thus it is ensured that the hard questions are shut out: the questions about an entitled, damaged and damaging masculinity that seeks to claw back power through violence.