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Pistorius Should Not Be the Face of Violence in South Africa

03/11/2014 12:36 EDT | Updated 05/11/2014 05:59 EDT

The opening act of Oscar Pistorius' murder trial commenced last week. With it began the 24-hour media theatre surrounding its proceedings. Over the coming weeks, Pistorius will not only be the face of South Africa, but also the personification of the country's struggle with violence. With one of the highest homicide rates in the world, violence is often portrayed as a "normalized" and inescapable part of South African life.

As the dramatic trial plays out, the lives of Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp -- the woman he shot -- will be projected into the media spotlight and scrutinized ad nauseam. Into their personal narratives are likely to be written a number of subplots. There will be talk of the risk factors associated with violence. Opinions will be given about how social fragmentation, gun culture, national history, fear and conceptions of masculinity have intertwined to contribute to present-day violence. All of this will be projected through Pistorius and Steenkamp.

Violence in South Africa is nothing new. Both the devastating effects of violence, and the risk factors underlying it, have existed before this trial and will continue to exist after it. What will cease to exist is a media and public fascination with violence. As interest wanes, violence will no longer have a face. Nor will it be splashed across the front pages of newspapers in penetrating personal analyses that border on mania. Violence, and portrayals of violence, will return to "normal," to be parsed out a paragraph at a time and buried amongst the inner folds of the nation's newspapers.

And, still, violence will persist in places like the Cape Flats, the low-lying hinterland on the outskirts of Cape Town. Though Cape Town was recently dubbed South Africa's "deadliest city," you would never know it by visiting the central City Bowl. With its iconic panoramas of Table Mountain, it is glossy and serene. But no more than 20 minutes away, fierce battles are played out between rival gangs. Last year, for instance, a surge in gang violence prompted education officials in one community to close 16 schools for two days.

Yet few South Africans -- or Capetonians for that matter -- know anything of substance about neighbourhoods like these -- other than, of course, the fact that they are violent. So violence exists as a faceless phenomenon, without the personalized storylines or characterizations afforded the Pistorius trial.

There are no processes of humanization, and thus there is no empathy. Violence is predation, perpetrated by caricatures of gangsters and skollies. Within such one-dimensional stereotypes, the Cape Flats is a forsaken underworld, best renounced to moralistic dichotomies of good and evil, and the heavy-handed approach to policing this thinking promotes. By extension, young coloured men are seen principally as security threats -- exactly the kind of abstract boogeymen Pistorius claims to have defended himself against.

Lost is any real account of the lives of the men and women affected by the violence, as well as the stories of the communities that live with it and work against it. Also unaccounted for is the fact that a great many of those that are shooting -- and getting shot -- are 15-to-17-years-old, or even younger. In other words, these are typically boys who are forced to navigate morality in a context where violence and death are a weekly, if not daily, occurrence.

They have often been pushed onto the streets due to problems at home, and into gangs for protection or for respect, in circumstances that are lacking sufficient opportunities for jobs or empowerment. There are those hopeful examples, of instance, which have successfully escaped violent lives. Others have tried, but have been pulled back in -- usually due to some combination of familial dislocation, lack of work, or personal struggles with substance abuse. Thus, though they may be "gangsters," these boys are also human beings, with real hopes, fears, and aspirations towards a better life.

I use the Cape Flats as an example because I have been conducting research in Hanover Park for the last half-year. But violence is similarly present and disregarded across the country. The victims of this violence are black, coloured, Indian, and white, women and men, rich and poor, famous and unknown.

While the stories of Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp deserve attention, there are other poignant personal histories across this spectrum of experience that are ignored, and have been ignored for decades. Surely such stories deserve real attention as well. Not a matter-of-fact reporting of time, place, and cause of death, but real attention; in narratives as penetrating and rich as is necessitated by the lives they represent. And if these stories do not deserve attention, the conclusion can only be that Steenkamp's death is exceptional, while the violent death of a 17-year-old boy or girl living in the Cape Flats is normal. In other words, violence is acceptable for some and not for others.

In the next months, a verdict will be issued in the Pistorius trial. The trial will end and the hysteria around it will disappear. If anything, its real lasting impact of the trial may be the opportunity it offers for an introspective dialogue about the national struggle with violence. But to be truly impactful, this dialogue cannot privilege the experiences of some, while disregarding others. It must itself be a projection of the democratic ideal of the rainbow nation. Otherwise it ignores the common humanity of all South Africans and the claims to full citizenship of each individual.

What is more, to look away from the atrocities being committed, is itself to do violence; not only by ignoring the senseless killing of boys and girls, but by allowing another kind of 'structural violence,' which kills slowly through alienation, exclusion, and marginalization. And if one is to condemn those who carry out violence in such circumstances, one must also condemn the systems that sustain that violence, and the role of wider South African society in perpetrating these systems -- if only by omission.

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