History Written on a Woman's Body: The Oscar Pistorius Affair Has Exposed the Fragility of South Africa's Post-Apartheid Settlement

By Twidle, Hedley | New Statesman (1996), March 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

History Written on a Woman's Body: The Oscar Pistorius Affair Has Exposed the Fragility of South Africa's Post-Apartheid Settlement


Twidle, Hedley, New Statesman (1996)


The 14th of February was an eerie day in Cape Town: the heat, the road closures, the sense of a city under lockdown ahead of President Jacob Zuma's State of the Nation address that Valentine's Day evening. And all the while, in a gated complex in Pretoria, where Reeva Steenkamp, the 29-year-old model and girlfriend of the Olympian/Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, had been shot, the biggest news story of the year was breaking.

This coincidence of parliament opening and Pistorius falling offered itself all too obviously as a national metaphor. Some pundits remarked that such hypermasculine sporting icons are destined to fail. They are fashioned by the media into the carriers of vast social fantasies, even as the competitive, corporate world in which they win fame makes them inadequate to accommodate any national story, let alone one as complex and painful as that of modern South Africa.

Yet, at the same time, others were already enlisting Pistorius, who is 26, in another kind of national metaphor. In this, he represented the ability of the previously disadvantaged to compete with able-bodied nations, to be world class, before disintegrating into self-interest, confusion and violence--a violence acted out mostly on the bodies of South African women.

On that strange State of the Nation day, Zuma's speech had been moved from its normal morning slot to the evening. This meant that the president made the trip from his Cape Dutch residence to parliament on sealed-off highways at the height of rush hour, causing delays on the city's tangled road network and resentment among working people. Private cars refused to pull over for the state motorcade; there was angry hooting.

Some suggested that the refusal to budge in the face of police convoys was a commentary on the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC). Or was it, others countered, just the reaction of racists to a black president in an expensive car?

This exchange--local and throwaway as it was--stayed with me even as every television channel and newspaper sank its teeth into the Steenkamp-Pistorius story. It points to a constant dilemma here, one that goes some way towards explaining why political debate in this country seems so stuck. This concerns the language of blame in South Africa: the question of how we identify perpetrators--whether historical or criminal, whether across social domains or in intimate domestic spaces. And this, in turn, is related to the problem of distinguishing between various kinds of critique, in separating the progressive from the reactionary.

Were those noisy car horns the sound of committed but genuinely exasperated citizens? Or of disengaged outliers who always wanted to see the ANC fail? A bit of both, no doubt, each inflecting the other.

The episode seemed emblematic of how little agreement there is as to what form the language of political critique should take in South Africa, where it comes from and who should be allowed to wield it. The rush to blame and judgement in the Pistorius affair--and the range of perpetrators that it summoned from the depths of the national imaginary--brought some of these dynamics to the fore. As the country's bad week unfolded, from Pistorius's arrest to his bail hearing, the language of political debate became ever more entangled with the business of solving a crime.

After 2012, many South Africans were hoping for a better year. Confronted with chronic mismanagement in the education system, with the ANC government's attempts to pass the much-disputed Protection of Information Bill (popularly known as the "Secrecy Bill"), which redefines the "national interest" where government information is concerned, and with the police shooting of striking miners at the Marikana mine, commentators were prompted to return to the apartheid past.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The "gutter education" ofblack schoolchildren under apartheid and in the time of the National Party prime minister Hendrik Ver-woerd, said Mamphela Ramphele, the prominent businesswoman and anti-apartheid activist (and former partner of Steve Biko), was better than instruction for learners today. …

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