Pistorius And South Africa's Culture Of Violence

The Olympian and his girlfriend seemed to have the perfect romance--until he killed her

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Photo-Illustration by Sean McCabe for TIME: Jordi Matas; Getty Images, Polaris, Reuters

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To understand pistorius and Steenkamp, to understand South Africa, it helps to know the place where the couple chose to spend their holiday. Cape Town has arguably the most beautiful geographical feature of any city in the world: Table Mountain, a kilometer-high, almost perfectly flat block of 300 million-year-old sandstone and granite that changes from gray to blue to black in the golden light that bathes the bottom of the world. From Table Mountain, the city radiates out in easy scatterings across the olive, woody slopes as they plunge into the sea. Its central neighborhoods are a sybarite's paradise of open-fronted cafés and pioneering gastronomy, forest walks and vineyards. Commuters strap surfboards to their cars to catch a wave on the way home. The business of the place is media: fashion magazines, art studios, p.r., advertising, movies and TV. Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy just wrapped the new Mad Max movie. Action-movie director Michael Bay is shooting Black Sails, a TV prequel to Treasure Island.

But while Cape Town's center accounts for half its footprint, it is home to only a fraction of its population. About 2 million of Cape Town's 3.5 million people live to the east in tin and wood shacks and social housing built on the collection of estuary dunes and baking sand flats called the Cape Flats. Most of those Capetonians are black. Class in Cape Town is demarcated by altitude: the farther you are from the mountain, the lower, poorer and blacker you are. Cape Town's beautiful, affluent center is merely the salubrious end of the wide spectrum that describes South Africa's culture and its defining national trait: aside from the Seychelles, the Comoros Islands and Namibia, South Africa is the most inequitable country on earth.

This stark gradation helps explain South Africa's raging violent crime (and why, contrary to legend, Cape Town actually has a higher murder rate than Johannesburg). In 2011 the U.N. Office for Drugs and Crime found that South Africa had the 10th highest murder rate in the world. Rape is endemic. Two separate surveys of the rural Eastern Cape found that 27.6% of men admitted to being rapists and 46.3% of victims were under 16, 22.9% under 11 and 9.4% under 6--figures that accorded with the high proportion of attacks that occurred within families.

But what really distinguishes South Africa from its peers in this league of violence is not how the violence rises with inequality nor its sexual nature--both typical of places with high crime--but its pervasiveness and persistence. With the exception of Venezuela, all the other top 10 violent countries are small African, Central American or Caribbean states whose populations tend to be bound together in close physical proximity, creating tight knots of violence. South Africa, on the other hand, knows crime as a vast stretch of lawlessness covering an area twice the size of France or Texas. And it has been that way almost as long as anyone can remember.

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