It is conventional wisdom that South Africa has a very high rate of domestic abuse. (Exact rates are unknown due to irregularities in South Africa’s statistics, combined with the fact that gender based violence is vastly underreported worldwide.) Oscar Pistorius is a celebrated South African athlete who competed in the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, using prostheses (his legs were amputated as a child). In 2014, he killed his live-in girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, a South African model. At the trial, he said he believed she was an intruder. He was acquitted of murder but convicted of manslaughter before a black, female judge, Thokozile Masipa. (The race and gender of the judge caused little comment.) She found that the prosecution failed to prove intent, necessary for a murder charge. The trial was the occasion for much South African soul-searching, not least about domestic abuse and gender-based violence.
Judge Masipa sentenced Pistorius to six years in jail. Under South African law, having served one-sixth of his sentence, he may be released under house arrest. That was to occur on August 21. However, under South African law, the prosecution as well as the defense may appeal. The prosecution has now done so. In the meantime, the Progressive Women’s Movement of South Africa, a civil organization with ties to the governing African National Congress (ANC) has asked the minister of justice to keep Pistorius in jail pending the outcome of the prosecution’s appeal. The ANC Women’s League welcomed the delay in the release of Pistorius. According to the media, the Women’s League said, “The ANC Women’s League remains convinced that judge Thokozile Masipa handed down an erroneous judgment and an extremely lenient sentence to Pistorius, setting a bad precedent in cases involving gender-based violence, especially in instances where women die at the hands of their partners.” It has also roundly criticized the presiding judge for her sentence, which, it maintains, was too lenient. The minister of justice has agreed to the request. However, it is widely expected in South Africa that he will be overruled by the courts.
Pistorius’ supporters see this gambit as ANC grandstanding on the issue of violence against women. On the other hand, many, including the victim’s family, do feel that the original sentence was too lenient and the result of sloppy police work. The Progressive Women’s Movement doesn’t appear to be very active at present. The promptness with which the ANC Women’s League supported its call raises questions about its independence from the ruling party. However, the fact that it circulated a successful petition against Pistorius’ release signifies gender based violence is an issue South Africans care about. But the South African judiciary is independent and tough. Observers predict that Pistorius will, in fact, be transferred to house arrest in the near future, if not by August 21. While prosecutors may appeal a judgment and a sentence, the success rate is not high. The sloppy police work cannot be undone.
Is there anything worth saying about this episode? Yes. It illustrates once again the independence of the judiciary, both from the government of the day but also from public opinion. It also illustrates the complexity of race and politics. Pistorius and Steenkamp are white Afrikaners. The judge and the attorney general are black, as are most members of the ANC Women’s League. So, too, are most of the victims of gender based violence. Yet it is the Women’s League that is criticizing by name the presiding judge in the Pistorius case as having been too lenient in a case of gender based violence. A Steenkamp family spokesperson thanked the Progressive Women’s Movement, and specifically Jacqui Mofeteng, the first black Miss South Africa and a women’s rights advocate, for its intervention in favor of keeping Pistorius in jail. This episode highlights that issues of gender based violence cross South Africa’s conventional social divisions.