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Pistorius trial puts spotlight on S. African preoccupation with crime

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel walks past a reconstruction of the Pistorius bathroom.

New York Times

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel walks past a reconstruction of the Pistorius bathroom.

Johan Gerber is a shy, neat man with iron-gray hair, a ready smile and a quiet voice. But on the streets, he has taken to carrying an open pocket knife with a mean 4-inch blade, concealed in an envelope and ready to use.

Last month, three men accosted him in broad daylight, one of whom hit him in the stomach and grabbed his cell phone. A few years back, eight men surrounded him, held a knife to his throat and stole his wallet. His car and two trailers also have been stolen.

Gerber is afraid. In addition to the knife he carries when he's out on the street, he sells protection to many South Africans with the same fear: pistols and rifles, and hollow-pointed bullets that cause devastating injuries — the kind of bullets Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius used when he shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine's Day 2013.

Pistorius, who is on trial for murder, has maintained in court statements that he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder when he fired four shots through a door, killing her as she cowered on the other side.

South Africa has been captivated by the trial, partly because of the celebrity status of Pistorius, the first athlete to compete in the Olympic Games on prosthetic devices, and his model girlfriend. There is a cable television channel dedicated to covering the case 24/7. But some say there is another reason as well: South Africans' fear of crime.

The trial has helped launch a renewed debate here about an enduring problem: One of the highest rates of violent crime in the world, and its connection to race and economic opportunity.

Pistorius has said he was in a state of terror when he opened fire, believing that someone had broken into his house. He has not said whom he feared that someone was. He wouldn't have to, according to crime novelist Margie Orford.

"The paranoid imaginings of suburban South Africa have lurked like a bogeyman at the periphery of this story for the past year," she wrote in a newspaper column on the eve of the trial. "It is the threatening body, nameless and faceless, of an armed and dangerous black intruder."

Raymond Suttner, a professor at Rhodes University, said in a blog post that "black" has always been "and continues to be, a code word for criminality in South Africa." Black South Africans counter that many who grew up during apartheid are equally fearful of violence by whites.

Some South Africans point to a lack of economic opportunity as the reason their country suffers such a high rate of violent crime. And Gerber says that half his customers are prosperous blacks, also seeking to protect themselves.

Twenty years after the end of apartheid, the country still is deeply unequal and divided, with poor black people occupying sprawling, rat-infested shantytowns while wealthy, largely white communities shelter behind 9-foot-high walls in estates equipped with round-the-clock security guards and cameras that record everyone who enters.

Many, including Pistorius, still feel the need to arm themselves. Gerber says Pistorius paid a couple of visits to the shooting range Gerber maintains at the back of his shop.

There was virtually no crime at the estate where Pistorius lived. But his defense lawyer, Barry Roux, has repeatedly suggested that "secure" estates are really not that secure at all.

The prosecution has cited the athlete's fascination with guns, as well as his temper and erratic behavior, in maintaining that he intentionally killed Steenkamp after an argument.

According to an analysis by the Pretoria-based Institute of Security Studies, South African homicide victims are disproportionately young, black (or mixed-race) males. Only 1.8 percent of victims in 2009 were white, even though whites accounted for 9.6 percent of the population. About 87.5 percent of homicide victims were black, with blacks accounting for 79 percent of the population.

Whites' fear of crime disrupts ordinary activities, according to a 2012 report by Statistics South Africa. About half of whites are afraid to go to parks and open spaces, compared with 32 percent of blacks; nearly 35 percent are afraid to let their children walk to school, compared with 8 percent of blacks; and 27 percent are afraid to walk to work, compared with 11 percent of blacks.

Anti-crime forums and cell phone text alert systems amplify the fear, urging constant vigilance and sending out warnings of "bravo males," or "B males," (code for black men) spotted in residential neighbors.

"B male says name is Noah. Brown jacket plus jeans plus beanie. Knocking on doors in York rd towards 2nd Ave, suspicious story," reads a typical alert. Another warns, "3 black males, white top, black top, blue top? in derby road heading towards purley park — look suspicious. They have gone down gordon road — very suspicious."

Gerber, who lives in a secure complex with a 24-hour complement of 21 private security guards, opened his knife's sharp, silver blade and demonstrated how he holds it when he is on the street.

After his cell phone was stolen, "I was so frightened that if something happened, I know I would've just gone berserk. I would use this knife," he said, eyes widening.

Jakes van der Merwe, an army instructor sucking hard on a cigarette outside a Pretoria mall, said crime was related to the country's high unemployment rate, which the government, run by the black majority for the last 20 years, has been unable to bring down.

Likewise, Elizabeth van Schalkwyk, who lives with her mother in a central Pretoria neighborhood pocked with buildings full of broken windows, blamed unemployment and drugs for feeding crime in her area.

Both said they had been victims of crime. Van der Merwe had most of his valuables stolen in a house break-in, and lost two friends, a couple shot dead in a carjacking. Thieves broke into Van Schalkwyk's apartment and ransacked it while she slept.

"You can't go out at night," Van der Merwe said. "You can't go home without being afraid something's going to happen. You can't go to a restaurant without being afraid something's going to happen. I always carry a gun — and so do most of my friends."

Under South African law, an intruder must pose a direct threat before a homeowner like Pistorius can shoot. But Sandile Memela, director of public relations at the South African government's Department of Arts and Culture, maintained in the Mail and Guardian newspaper that Pistorius would not have been arrested and charged had the person cowering behind the door been a black burglar instead of a white woman.

Pistorius trial puts spotlight on S. African preoccupation with crime 04/16/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2014 7:45pm]
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