Under the impression there's plenty we still don't know, I eagerly read Thursday's op-ed in the New York Times on the recent fatal shooting by South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. The author was Eusebius McKaiser, an author, scholar, and talk show host in Pistorius's country.
It's never been quite so clear to me before how the sausage gets made.
First, there's a dismissive reference to first impressions. These fell along South Africa's "familiar racial fault lines," McKaiser tells us. Whites held that Pistorius wouldn't have panicked and fired through his bathroom door if the black government did a better job of curbing the country's "crime epidemic." To blacks, the incident showed that a presumably upright white man was "as capable of wrongdoing as a black one."
McKaiser would never have cracked the pages of the Times if he hadn't brushed these shallow reactions aside. As the "narrative in court" becomes "more complex," he tells us, South Africans of all hues "are being forced to respond . . . with greater caution and less haste."
I suppose that's true. Steenkamp was killed on February 14. It's a week later. There's no official cutoff point for a hasty response, but my guess is the window of opportunity has closed.
At any rate, McKaiser digs deeper. What the narrative in court has produced, McKaiser tells us, is what narratives in court usually produce—a whole lot of contradictory detail. The prosecution says one thing; the defense says another. McKaiser can't say where the facts will lead. He acknowledges that Pistorius's claim that he thought he was firing at a burglar could hold up.
But what of it! What matters now is that "the broad outline of the case is numbingly familiar to South Africans of all backgrounds." Pistorius was short-tempered, obsessed with guns, and paranoid about crime. What's more, "violence against women and girls is rampant here."
This may well be a broad outline of Pistorius and a broad outline of South Africa (its incidence of rape is said to be the highest in the world); but does rampant violence against women have anything to do with what McKaiser is writing about, the death of Steenkamp? Yes, because that's not what McKaiser is writing about. Widening his lens, McKaiser now tells the story of the brutal recent murder of a poor black girl. The details are appalling. And now the pundit has a second leg for the easel on which he intends to prop his Big Picture.
"Experts say that a woman is raped every four seconds in South Africa," he writes, racing to his conclusion. "The Pistorius case tells us that brutal violence against women is an equal-opportunity affliction in South Africa; it has no respect for whether its victims are rich or poor, black or white, suburban or rural. Our society is drenched in violence."
This is a powerful message. No, it is two powerful messages. The first is to the readers of the New York Times, to whom he is saying this:
Pistorius is just like "countless other South African men—aggressive and possessed of a sense of entitlement in his relationships with women." So what difference does it make whether he killed his girlfriend intentionally or by mistake? Let cops and lawyers fret over that niggling detail. A nicer guy in a more civilized country wouldn't have killed her at all!
And to any black South African who might chance on his op-ed essay, McKaiser is saying this:
You poor, black women who get raped every four seconds think you have it tough. Life's no better if you're a famous white model like Reeva Steenkamp. They get shot through bathroom doors by their boyfriends—accidentally or on purpose makes me no nevermind.
There is no third leg to the easel. But McKaiser hopes we turn the page before we notice it doesn't stand up.