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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The dissolution is everywhere. Rival ANC leaders tear their party apart. Local politicians shoot each other in the street--40 assassinations in the past two years in President Jacob Zuma's home state of KwaZulu-Natal alone. The wave of labor unrest that saw police shoot dead 34 miners at a Marikana platinum mine last August--and has held South Africa's economy hostage ever since--has its origins in a power struggle between two unions. In the townships, South African blacks beat and kill Zimbabweans, Somalis and Congolese. In white areas, Afrikaner whites separate themselves from English whites, nursing a distrust that dates from the 1899--1902 Boer War.

In the first years after apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke about a "rainbow nation." The new South Africa has turned out to be no harmonious band of colors. Behind the latest in intruder deterrents for the elite, or flimsy barriers pulled together from tin sheets and driftwood for the poor, South Africans live apart and, ultimately, alone.

Despite the adulation he received, that isolation seemed to have touched Pistorius. He sometimes seemed out of step. At his bail hearing, Steenkamp's best friend, Samantha Greyvenstein, said Steenkamp told her "sometimes ... Oscar was moving a little fast." Likewise, Steenkamp's housemate has told journalists that Pistorius was a persistent suitor to the point of harassment. In his summation, prosecutor Gerrie Nel noted that Pistorius once persuaded a friend to take the blame for firing a gun in a restaurant. "'Always me,'" said Nel. "'Protect me.'"

It takes a collective effort to stop a country from falling apart. Fragmented and behind their barricades, individual South Africans just get to watch. just another south african story was the weary headline over a picture of Pistorius and Steenkamp in the iMaverick, a South African online magazine. Indeed, the media attention directed at the Pistorius case unearthed so many similar South African stories, it began to seem that almost no one connected to it was untouched by violent death. On Feb. 21 came news of Detective Warrant Officer Botha's seven attempted-murder charges. On Feb. 24, reports emerged that Pistorius' brother Carl faces trial for culpable homicide over a 2008 road accident in which a woman motorcyclist died. That same day a first cousin of Magistrate Desmond Nair, who is presiding in the case, killed herself and her sons, ages 17 and 12, with poison at their home in Johannesburg.

There is a moral to these South African stories. A nation whose racial reconciliation is even today hailed as an example to the world is, in reality, ever more dangerously splintered by crime. And inside this national disintegration, however small and well-defended South Africans make their laagers, it's never enough. Father rapes daughter. Mother poisons sons. Icon shoots cover girl.

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