CAPE TOWN – Oscar Pistorius was the perfect South African sports hero because victory over his disability made him a universally admired figure in a still-divided society. The profoundly macho culture he grew up in spans racial groups and provides some explanation for the country’s shocking rates of domestic violence.
“Black South African men are expected to prove their manliness by carrying knives and having lots of girlfriends,” said Rachel Jewkes of the South African Medical Research Council (MRC). “White Afrikaners like Pistorius do not need to have several girlfriends. But his love of guns speaks to the same hunger to prove his masculinity in the South African context.”
The full facts about the death of model Reeva Steenkamp have yet to emerge, but to South Africans her death came on the eve of the Black Friday Campaign for Rape Awareness in honor of Anene Booysen. The 17-year-old died after her ex-boyfriend and others allegedly gang-raped and disemboweled her on Feb. 2.
“The massive problem we need to understand in South Africa is the level of men’s violence against women and against each other,” said Lisa Vetten, a researcher who specializes in domestic abuse. Police statistics on domestic violence are limited. But 15,609 murders and 64,500 reported rapes in 2011-12 suggest massive levels of violence in South African homes.
Household surveys by the MRC have found that 40 percent of men have hit their partner and 1 in 4 men have raped a woman. Three-quarters of the men who admit to having raped women say they did so first as teenagers. The MRC found that, while a quarter of women had been raped, just 2 percent of those raped by a partner reported the incident to police.
Experts say South African society features all the known causes of rape and violence, including a historical culture of “might is right,” a wealth gap that makes men feel weak, an unequal relationship between women and men, lack of adequate child care, which results in the neglect of boys, and high male unemployment.
Jewkes, a British doctor and director of gender and health at the MRC, said: “Having a father at home is really unusual here. South African children are more likely to be raised by a nonbiological parent than by both biological parents. So you see high levels of neglect, humiliation and abuse, which develops into domestic violence. We also have a high rate of teenage pregnancies and those young mothers are not equipped to raise their children.
“South African men think women should be under their control. There is an idea that violence is justifiable as a means to keep women in their place. This has not changed in 20 years and even though the South African murder rate has dropped by 50 percent since 1999, rape figures have not.”
Jewkes and Vetten argue that Pistorius’ love of guns and fast cars illustrates his relationship with South Africa’s macho culture. “Afrikaner men are very patriarchal,” said Jewkes, “and within that culture gun ownership is seen as part of masculinity.”
Vetten believes the pressure on Pistorius may have been compounded. “Disabled men and women often struggle with their sense of masculinity or femininity because they are to some degree dependent. I have seen examples of them placing particular pride on physical attractiveness. Maybe he struggles with that. The guns and sports cars gave an impression that he was overcompensating so as to be seen as ‘normal.’ “