The Pistorius defence: fear of crime - or is it really racism?

White South Africans fear violent crime – but it occurs in townships not gated communities, says Pierre de Vos

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:14 ON Tue 15 Apr 2014

THE WEEK has not begun well for Oscar Pistorius. Under relentless cross-examination from prosecutor Gerrie Nel, the Paralympian athlete, standing trial for shooting and killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, came across as an evasive witness.

Pistorius first told the court he had “accidentally discharged” his firearm, then he said he acted out of fear because he thought his life was in danger, and then he said he did not mean to pull the trigger. Only the second of these claims provides a plausible legal defence.

Because there was no actual threat to Pistorius's life, he cannot rely on the principle of self-defence. However, in South African law, the principle of putative self-defence may apply where the accused genuinely believed his or her life was threatened.

Where an accused is found to have genuinely believed their life was in danger and that they was using reasonable means to avert an attack on themselves or their property, they may escape conviction for murder on the grounds that they lacked requisite intention.

Pistorius therefore has to convince the court that his vulnerability, as a disabled person living in South Africa, genuinely led him to believe his life was in danger from an intruder hiding behind a closed toilet door. The court must further be convinced that his response – pumping four bullets through the door – was reasonable in the circumstances.

For a person living outside South Africa, this may seem a tough ask. It may not seem remotely reasonable to shoot four “zombie-stopper” bullets into a door without having been directly threatened by an attacker and without knowing who was hiding behind it.

However, at the heart of the defence is an assumption that the high crime rate in South Africa, coupled with Pistorius’s vulnerable state as a disabled person, rendered his actions reasonable.

Life of crime

It is true that the rate of violent crime in South Africa is high. Although the murder rate has decreased substantially from 68.1 murders per 100,000 people in 1995/1996 to 30.3 per 100,000 in 2011/2012, this number remains extremely high. But statistics from different police stations also indicate that violent crime is far more rife in black townships than in the middle class areas where most white people live.

Pistorius lived in one of the many gated communities which have sprung up in response to the perceived threat of violent crime against middle class people. Often built in an identical faux-Tuscan style, houses in such communities are usually also kitted out with an elaborate alarm system, as was Pistorius's. Such communities are typically surrounded by a high wall with an electric fence on top; the entrance to the community is always strictly controlled.

It was exactly because Pistorius lived in a gated community that he could sleep with the windows of his bedroom open. That he lived in such a place therefore presents a major difficulty for the defence. Most middle-class South Africans not living in such communities perform elaborate rituals at night to lock doors and security gates, and to activate alarm systems linked to the offices of private security companies on 24-hour call in the event of the alarm being tripped.

The obsession with violent crime displayed by some middle-class white people in South Africa, usually in fearful discussions at dinner parties and on radio talk shows, has become something of a cliché. It is made fun of by comedians and those wishing to display their enthusiastic support for the so-called “new South Africa”.

Fear or racism?

This fear became prominent around the time when South Africa made the transition from white minority rule to democracy. When white South Africans express an acute fear of violent crime, it can often sound like fear of crime has become a more acceptable way for white people to express their fear of black people and of a government led by black people.

Pistorius needs to convince the court that his alleged fear of an intruder was not irrational and that his response to this alleged fear was reasonable. That is why he has alleged that he himself has on several occasions been the victim of crime.

Because he lived in a relatively safe gated community, the only possible way Pistorius could plausibly claim to have been as fearful as he said he was would be to show that because of his disability he felt especially vulnerable. In effect, he is asking the court not to treat him as a reasonable able-bodied person, but as a reasonable disabled person.

Pierre de Vos is the Cluade Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance at the University of Cape Town. This article was originally published on The Conversation. The Conversation · 

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Pierre Vos what a dumb moron you are. Hapless idiot. Where were you during the past 20 years when thousands of unarmed defenseless whites have been hunted down and butchered alive in the most gruesome, cruel, cold and calculated savage ways that the outside world has not even seen or heard of yet? You are absolutely right about the racism bit, except for who is pitching against who. The majority of blacks hate all whites and everything they stand for and behave exactly like Pistorius in that for centuries they have flatly refused to accept any responsibility in their lives. Everything they do not like in their lives, they immediately blame on the white man. Even black people who have worked hard to rise out of their cultural draw backs and who have become successful and responsible, are hated by the rest of the black for being successful. Go and speak to the Malema character to fast track your level of ignorance. I don't think you have the savvy to use condoms to prevent the spreading of your genes. At least your newspaper should censor your senseless ramblings. I expect that they will probably rather censor my comment than shut up a disgrace like you.

agreed ... No longer an SA resident ... Like so many others I left before becoming victim.
It happens everywhere not just townships. You don't even know your neighbors because everyone is behind 6 ft plus walls, security gates, bars on every window and electrified fences. I may not be a victim but know so many friends and colleagues that have been affected.

Glad to be gone.

This is complete nonsense. I lived in RSA for 20 years returning in 2007 and I can tell you that, while in a relative sense there is a lot of crime in the townships, the general level of violent crime is astonishing. Not only that but armed robbery in homes is very high and no attempt is made to ensure that the occupants are out and moreover people are murdered needlessly, with full intent you could say. Perhaps these very high end gated communities are safer than most areas but the general insinuations of this author are completely untrue.

AG please ... racism? Then most South Africans have to be racists for fearing intruders in their homes. I gave a spare security gate to my black gardener to install in his shack in Alexandra because he feared tsotsi's breaking in! There are certain areas in the townships where police officers don't even go in anymore. Wait until you are a victim of a violent hold-up in your own home (like many people I know personally) before considering to write junk like this.

Glad you are gone. Try Ukraine. Don't come back here, the beach at Fish Hoek does not deserve the likes of you and the other two cronies who commented here. Thanks Pierre for some balanced reporting!