12 March, 2013

South Africa's History of Celebrity Crime

by Mark Stevenson Curry

To the extent that celebrity news makes a real impression on local or international attentions, the story of Oscar Pistorious shooting dead his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day, 2013 was an immediate global media event. Pistorious himself needed little introduction. A double amputee who had competed as an athlete in Paralympic and Olympic Games events, he was well known as the Blade Runner, named for the synthetic lower legs and feet he used. He enjoyed lucrative sponsorships, a gilded lifestyle and was dating an attractive model. Reeva Steenkamp, known to South African celebrity-inspired audiences, was a law graduate, and thus admired for her attractive features, smarts, a budding television presence and her association with Pistorious. In the South African context, this relationship had the makings, including the spectre of tragedy, of a Kennedy-esque quality.

What is of different but perhaps greater interest is the history of violence in South African celebrity culture. Pistorious is not alone in having resorted to extreme violence to address perceived problems. Whereas in the United States celebrity homicide events are rare – as opposed to school shootings over the past decade - South Africa’s occasions of celebrity violence have a longer track record. A short summary of incidents suggests that race and gender are significant factors.

In 2011, a former national and provincial rugby player, Joseph Ntshongwana axed three people to death and injured a fourth. He claimed that a group of men had raped his daughter and infected her with HIV. His acts of vengeance were complicated by the fact that the victims appeared to have been unconnected to the alleged rape incident. The rape itself is disputed and the case remains before the court.

Rudi “Vleis” Visagie, also a famed rugby player, killed his daughter in 2004 by firing at her through the window of his home. He assumed that the sound of her car engine meant that a robbery was in process. His daughter, Marle, had in fact been trying to deliver a surprise gift to her boyfriend. Initial charges of culpable homicide were later dropped following an appeal by Visagie’s legal team on humanitarian grounds.

An earlier case involved the South African golfing legend, Bobby Locke. He had won four British Opens and for a short period in the early 1950s was the dominant prize winner in the U.S. In February 1979, at the age of 61, Locke was found guilty of shooting an African labourer in the back with a hand gun following a dispute at a construction site Locke was involved in. He pleaded not guilty but paid a 140 rand fine in lieu of 60 days in prison.

The most notorious case was the murder trial of Herman Charles Bosman, a writer. He killed his step brother in 1926 while visiting family in Johannesburg. An initial death sentence was commuted and he was eventually paroled after five years of hard labour, after which he enjoyed a Bohemian lifestyle amid full re-accommodation into society.

Analysis of this history is revealing. First, in Bosman’s case a severe initial penalty was transformed into full rehabilitation for the killer. But by the time of the Visagie incident, the courts were given over to the perspective of the shooter as newly constructed victim. Here, a fault lies within the prevailing culture of violence – mediated through the safety and security fears of citizens – into which defensive violence is regarded and accepted as an unfortunate necessity. Second, Locke’s case exhibits a condition of relatively acceptable conduct under the apartheid laws of the time wherein a black worker’s insubordination was legitimately intolerable.

The ostensible difference in the Pistorious case is that one celebrity has ended the life of another. Nevertheless, on trend he stands a good chance of being acquitted. The correct feelers have been forwarded to the media: Pistorious had to act the way he did because of the ineptitude of the police services, made patently evident by how poorly the crime scene was investigated; Pistorious is close to suicide; Pistorious and his family are praying for Steenkamp’s. The element of forgiveness has been mooted, as if it were a private matter for the celebrity families to settle according to the contents of their consciences and their wallets. Celebrities in South Africa might appear to be conditionally less guilty within reasonable doubt than ordinary citizens. But what this speaks to is the demonstration of special impunity as well as the way in which South African men deal with questions of honour and their role as protector of familial, cultural and ownership values. The prevailing defence is that protecting self, property, and family, to say nothing of the place of women within such cultural hieroglyphics, is paramount. Only slightly more questionable is the means by which it is done – shoot or chop first; worry about the fallout later.

Another angle, however, is that apartheid accorded all whites with something like celebrity status. A white post office official was legally and inherently imbued with greater standing than an African doctor or lawyer, which in general afforded whites relative impunity where it involved issues of racial conflict. And it is with regard to celebrity crimes in post-apartheid South Africa that we can take stock of a link running from the perversities of the previous system to the complexities of the so-called New South Africa. The issue is not, therefore, whether Pistorious knowingly or accidentally killed his girlfriend, but the ways in which the legitimacy of the system is undermined by special pleading and continues, as in the past, to favour the interests of a special collective.

These tangential aspects of the celebrity crime equation lie at the disturbing core of South African societal norms. Until the law, social practitioners, scholars and community organizers begin investigating these issues from new points of view, it might not be long before a repetition occurs. U.S. school shooting trends appear to show this acutely: once today’s case has been forgotten, tomorrow’s is about to begin.

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