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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In South Africa, Pistorius' achievements resonated deepest of all. In a nation obsessed by disadvantage, he was the ultimate meritocrat, a runner with no legs who ignored the accidents of his birth to compete against the best. Many South Africans no doubt would have seen his color before anything else. But for some, he existed, like Mandela, above and beyond South Africa's divisions. He had outraced the past and symbolized a hoped-for future. "We adored him," wrote the black commentator Justice Malala in Britain's Guardian. "For us South Africans ... it is impossible to watch Oscar Pistorius run without ... wanting to break down and cry and shout with joy."

With Pistorius' arrest for Steenkamp's murder, South Africa's dreams collided with its reality. Pistorius doesn't dispute that he killed Steenkamp. Rather he contends his action was reasonable in the circumstances.

The essence of Pistorius' argument is unyielding defense of his laager. In an affidavit read in court by his lawyer, Barry Roux, Pistorius recalled how the couple spent Valentine's eve quietly at his two-story home. "She was doing her yoga exercises and I was in bed watching television. My prosthetic legs were off." Despite having dated only a few months, "we were deeply in love and I could not be happier." After Steenkamp finished her exercises, she gave him a Valentine's present that he promised not to open until the next day. Then the couple fell asleep in his second-floor bedroom.

Pistorius used to tell journalists that he never slept easy. In his affidavit, he said he was "acutely aware" of South Africa's violent crime. "I have received death threats before. I have also been a victim of violence and of burglaries before. For that reason I kept my firearm, a 9-mm Parabellum, underneath my bed when I went to bed at night."

Pistorius awoke in the early hours of Feb. 14. He remembered a fan he had left on his balcony and fetched it by hobbling on his stumps. Closing the sliding doors behind him, he "heard a noise in the bathroom ... I felt a sense of terror rushing over me. There are no burglar bars across the bathroom window and I knew that contractors who worked at my house had left the ladders outside."

"I grabbed my 9-mm pistol. I screamed for him/them to get out of my house ... I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself ... I fired shots at the toilet door and shouted to Reeva to phone the police. She did not respond and I moved backwards out of the bathroom, keeping my eyes on the bathroom entrance. Everything was pitch dark ... When I reached the bed, I realized Reeva was not in bed. That is when it dawned on me that it could have been Reeva who was in the toilet."

Pistorius says he put on his legs, beat down the locked door with a cricket bat, called an ambulance and carried Steenkamp downstairs to his front door, where he laid her on the floor. "She died in my arms," he wrote.

Apartheid literally means separation. Nineteen years after Mandela and the ANC overthrew apartheid, South Africa still struggles with its divisions. What race divided, crime and distrust have now atomized. In a reverse of the U.S. experience, segregation has reached its logical end point: disintegration.

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