Last week, Oscar Pistorius was sentenced to five years in prison for the fatal shooting of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, with a further three-year sentence for firearm charges to be served concurrently. The media coverage of the trial has been extensive and it is widely known as the ‘Oscar Pistorius trial’ – a fact that has already been critiqued by feminist analysis (see posts by Tumblr and Huffington Post). However, it has not, as far as I know, been analysed from an intersectional perspective. Such an analysis reveals a fascinating example of how systems of power are continually shifting, often in contradictory and coalescent ways. Thus, whilst taking an explicitly feminist approach, I want to explore how the strands of race, gender, class and disability are intricately intertwined within this one trial. Although this may be one individual, high-profile case, it is important to situate it within the social structures it is produced by and in which it is located.
I also want to counteract the shift in focus that the trial has brought to the gun culture and the militarization of post-apartheid South African society, as well as the South African prison system. Whilst such issues are important, I believe this focus only serves to further obscure the complex gendered issues at stake, centred around what was ultimately the brutal killing by a male of an intimate female partner.
The killing of Reeva Steenkamp occurred in a climate of domestic violence. In South Africa, approximately half of women who are murdered are killed by an intimate partner. Such incidents occur at a rate of an average of six women every day, which is the highest reported rate in the world. To place this in context, in the UK, two women are killed every week by their current or former intimate partner.
[While I have been conscious of closely situating this case within its specific location, it must be noted that domestic violence is of course by no means an exclusively South African problem. Although research has indicated it is a hugely significant problem there, domestic violence is a widespread, global, gender-based problem, not one which conforms to national or geographical boundaries. For more on this, see the recent UN report which describes the issue as a pandemic.
Although Judge Masipa convicted Pistorius of the lesser charge of culpable homicide rather than murder, it must be remembered (a fact that seems to be often forgotten) that there was clear evidence presented in the trial that Steenkamp – and Pistorius’s former girlfriend Samantha Taylor – had both felt controlled and harassed by their partner. The privileged positioning of both Steenkamp and Pistorius along the lines of wealth, race and fame, ironically worked to shine a spotlight on the often-ignored issue of intimate partner abuse, as well as highlight the fact that such abuse occurs across all social strata. It must be said, however, that throughout the case, Steenkamp was consistently positioned only in relation to Pistorius. Unfortunately, Judge Masipa’s institutionally privileged ruling only served to reposition the issue of violence against women and abuse within relationships as being ‘normal’. In reference to a text message that Steenkamp had sent to Pistorius saying: “I’m scared of you sometimes, how you snap at me and of how you will react to me” and describing how she felt attacked by the “one person I deserve protection from,” Masipa stated: “Normal relationships are dynamic and unpredictable most of the time, and human beings are fickle.” This is a frankly astonishing assimilation of abuse into ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’ behaviour, because it occurs between intimate partners.
It is also significant from an intersectional perspective that Judge Masipa – in the context of post-Apartheid South Africa – is a black female judge. While it could be argued that Masipa’s positioning as a black woman is irrelevant to her legal standing, it is interesting to note that such a positioning effectively conflicts with her ruling which ultimately favoured the white, male in question. Her ruling and sentencing has been extensively criticised by the public, media and prominent figures. Would such a ruling by a white male judge have received more condemnation, coming from one who would enjoy similar racial and gender privileges as the accused? Or less, coming as it would from one whose authority and credibility is more supported by the social structures within which it is produced? Does Masipa’s positioning conversely add more credibility to her judgment coming as it does from one who more closely aligns with the victim?
The defence team in the trial sought to frame Pistorius’s disabled position as generating anger: a sense of vulnerability and anxiety that explained his actions, leading to acute anxiety and an over-defensive reaction to an exaggerated ‘threat.’ It was also used to argue that he should be placed under house arrest rather than be sent to jail. Pistorius’s positioning is, of course, distinctly different to that of an able-bodied person – both physically and psychologically (and in the trial he was not found to have an anxiety disorder at the time of the shooting). However, it must be remembered that he had, up unto this point, achieved a level of physical performance which far exceeded the average in his profession, successfully overcoming his physical impairment and competing against able-bodied athletes.
Race and class
As touched on above, the double racial and class privilege – as well as the wealthy famous status of both Steenkamp and Pistorius – collectively served to elevate the trial and draw widespread international attention. Taking an intersectional perspective reveals the depth in which such privilege is engrained. For example, if Pistorius had indeed done what he claimed, i.e. shot an implicitly black, male intruder, it wouldn’t have made half the headlines; such is the commonplace of such an occurrence in South Africa’s history. Similarly, it illustrates how the case has linked both patriarchal lines of violence against women with historic racial divisions.
Again, the defence ironically used Pistorius’s privileged position as a reason not to send him to jail saying that he had already lost so much he didn’t deserve to be punished any further, such was the huge fall from grace that he had “suffered” within society. This simply highlights and reinscribes the privilege he still enjoys as a white male within a society that remains deeply divided along racial and economic lines. No matter what the consequences of this case for Pistorius, this is a privilege he will always enjoy.