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Oscar Pistorius and the white fear factor

South Africa's crime rate is falling, but the Oscar Pistorius murder trial exposes a lingering fear of 'black crime'.

Last updated: 13 May 2014 15:19
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Many white South Africans say they live in fear of criminals, prompting high rates of gun ownership [GALLO/GETTY]

Pretoria, South Africa - The murder trial of Olympian Oscar Pistorius has dominated headlines around the world. But resting beneath the story is something particularly South African: Since Pistorius allegedly shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, last year, the fear of crime by affluent, generally white South Africans has raised its head.

During Pistorius' bail hearing last year his father, Henke Pistorius, told the Daily Telegraph that the family's guns were necessary because the black-led government did not protect white South Africans.

"It speaks to the ANC government, look at white crime levels, why protection is so poor in this country, it's an aspect of our society," he said.

Henke Pistorius' comments were disavowed by the rest of the family. But his sentiment is shared by many white South Africans.

Pistorius' fear of crime was introduced as part of his defence when he detailed how it had affected him and his family. He recounted his father being hijacked twice and a violent assault he witnessed.

These fears resonated with well-off, white South Africans, some of whom have turned up at his trial to offer him support.

Corlia Mouton and Anneke Bosman are among those who have taken time off work to wave to the athlete as he arrives in court. In their hands they held white balloons for "white peace" (though "not peace just for white people", Mouton quickly adds).

Before the end of apartheid, Mouton lived in Pretoria, a centre of Afrikaner life and culture. But, as the end of apartheid brought the end of laws restricting free movement for the black majority, many moved into previously racially-exclusive cities - and like many whites, the Moutons moved out.

Mouton's family were among those to leave following a series of break-ins at their home. She now lives in bucolic Hartbeespoort, about 40km outside of Pretoria.

About half of white South Africans are afraid to go to parks or public spaces, compared with 32 percent of the black population, according to a 2012 report from Statistics South Africa. 

"It's a dangerous place to live in," Mouton said of South Africa. "Not like other places in the world, because of the crime."

Mouton and Bosman, both cheerful young mothers, said that even driving into Pretoria to get to the courthouse for the Pistorius trial was a fraught experience.

"People are pushing against your window. Every time you feel someone is going to smash your window," Mouton said.

Feeling less safe in their homes

While rates for some crimes have reduced dramatically in the past 20 years, others have increased, leaving some South Africans fearful, according to Dr Johan Burger, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

The news drives people's perceptions and their fear of crime. It becomes a real threat in the minds of people.

- Johan Burger, Institute for Security Studies

Burger would not comment on Pistorius, but he did say South Africans in general felt less safe in their homes due to the changing nature of property crime.

"As far as murder is concerned, we are much safer than we were in 1994-95," he said. "But as far as being attacked in our home is concerned we are in a much more serious situation than we were."

One of the reasons, he suggests, is the period of flux during the mid-1990s. "There was much more movement control, there was much more separation between race and class," Burger said. "Criminals now exploit the new freedom that people have in terms of movement."

Homicides have dropped from a high of 67 murders per 100,000 in the 1990s to 31 per 100,000 - a drop that still leaves South Africa with one of the highest murder rates in the world.

The vast majority of homicide victims - more than 85 percent - were black, according to the Institute for Security Studies, although blacks make up less than 80 percent of the population.

Burger said the fear of crime is made worse by media coverage in South Africa, which often features horrific tales of home invasions.

"The news drives people's perceptions and their fear of crime. It becomes a real threat in the minds of people."

Burger added that while crime is a serious issue in South Africa, and the local media have a responsibility to report on insecurity, research shows that the chances of being a victim are much less than a well-to-do South African might believe.

Although many South Africans are afraid of home invasions and vehicle hijackings, the exclusive, high-security suburb of Pretoria that Pistorius lived in had a crime rate much lower than neighbouring areas. 

According to University of South Africa Criminology Professor Rudolph Zinn, affluent South Africans, regardless of race, are highly aware of crime and believe themselves to be at risk. 

"The fact that it is very difficult to predict when and under what circumstances you would become the victim of a home invasion," he says. "So people feel exposed even though they have security in place. Even in high security places, these crime incidents still occur." 

'Tied up with our history and guilt and fear'

But author and columnist Max du Preez said Pistorius' fear of crime is common for many white South Africans. "I think that it is not far from the truth that his paranoia is shared by many white South Africans, even unreasonably so," said du Preez.

"The feeling has developed among white people that they are particular victims of crime and that is completely wrong according to all statistics," he said.

It [fear of crime] is tied in with the deep seated, subconscious feelings that we are the haves and the former oppressors… and you expect the people who have been oppressed to come back for us.

- Max du Preez, columnist 

Du Preez said that the fear of crime was a product of South Africa's history and a consciousness by some white South Africans that they were "oppressors" during apartheid and benefited from segregation, making them the nation's "haves" instead of its "have-nots".

"It is tied in with the deep seated, subconscious feelings that we are the haves and the former oppressors…and you expect the people who have been oppressed to come back for us," du Preez said. 

Du Preez said that, while fear of crime was commonplace in many places in the world and often tied up with racism, such sentiments are seemingly prevalent in South Africa.

"I think in our country, it is tied up with our history and guilt and fear," he said.

Last year, during the bail hearing, it was common to hear white South Africans voice support for Pistorius because he had claimed the shooting of Steenkamp was done in defence of his home. There was also a strong feeling that if Pistorius was found guilty while allegedly acting in defence of his home, then affluent whites would be the next to suffer.

"Many white South Africans have sort of retreated and they feel alienated and this is the kind of reaction one would then get. 'If I don't have the right to defend myself in my own home then what the hell is my freedom about?' sort of thing," said du Preez.

This week, Pistorius' defence has called a psychologist who has testified to the Olympian's anxiety and fears of crime. His freedom may well depend on whether such fear can explain the alleged shooting death of Steenkamp.

Follow Kenichi Serino on Twitter: @KenichiSerino

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Al Jazeera
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