The Oscar Pistorius case is on the front page of every newspaper I have read online today. That rather surprised me because even though he is well-known in South Africa and was mentioned quite a lot during the 2012 London Olympics, I didn’t think he was a household name worldwide. I was flabbergasted to say the least to see his face splashed across every newspaper on the newsstand in Sweden today.
Because the case is still largely based on speculation, I am not going to concentrate on that. What has struck me is how many people are surprised that he had so many guns, that he lived in a walled estate with armed guards and electric fences, and mostly that people in South Africa were rather blasé about the fact that he was initially thought to have shot an intruder. The question seems to be ‘is it really like this?’
The answer is – yes it is. Unfortunately. I have not lived in South Africa for 14 years but when I did live there I carried a (licensed) Baby Browning 6.35mm semi-automatic pistol with me all the time for a good while. I was also trained by an ex boyfriend to use a 9mm. I lived alone, I drove at night alone so I carried a gun for protection. The thought did cross my mind that I could be killed with it but that was a risk I was prepared to take. As a woman, if I was involved in a robbery or a hijacking I was likely to be violently raped as well and I wanted to even the odds a little even if it meant hurting or maybe killing someone. I also carried pepper spray on my keyring.
I, like most people in South Africa, had been mugged, burgled and robbed. But luckily not raped or hijacked. Violent crime in South Africa means that the robbers will not just rob you – they will rape your wife and children in front of you and then kill you. You learn not to stop at traffic lights at night, not to stop for police roadblocks, not to wear sunglasses or have your handbag in the front of the car with you, not to open the windows while driving or drive with the doors unlocked. Not to go out at night, to avoid walking around alone. If you are late to work people assume you have been hijacked instead of jumping to the conclusion you have overslept or are hungover.
And since I have left South Africa the situation has worsened – one in two women in South Africa will be raped. A rape occurs ever four minutes. Sixty murders occur each day. I keep banging on about rape but more than 10 of my close friends have been raped. Two of them were gang raped and attacked. One of those had her head severed and was disemboweled after being raped. She lived to tell the tale but many do not.
About one citizen in every 20 owns a registered firearm and millions more weapons circulate illegally. The gnawing fear of violent crime is such that most houses are surrounded by walls and barbed wire, often electrified to deter intruders.
The wealthier neighbourhoods of Pretoria and Johannesburg are patrolled by armed guards from private security firms, who can be summoned at the touch of a panic button. Even so, many people opt to live – like Oscar Pistorius – in a sealed-off compound where anyone wishing to enter must give their names and have their cars searched. Sometimes, there is a fingerprint entry system to pick out known criminals.
South Africa remains one of the most violent societies on earth. The murder rate was 31.9 per 100,000 people last year, compared to 1.2 in Britain. When fewer than 16,000 South Africans were killed by their compatriots in 2011/12, this was seen as an improvement from a previous high of 26,000. In Britain, the number of murders was below 700 – and the British population is almost 30 per cent higher.
When it comes to gun crime, the United Nations says that South Africa has the 12th highest total number of fatal shootings in the world, outranked by the likes of Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia, along with the United States.
For as long as South Africa remains one of the world’s most dangerous countries, however, keeping a gun in the house will remain acceptable or, in some eyes, absolutely necessary.
I am aware when I go back to South Africa for two months each year, that I have lost my edge. I was attacked and robbed of everything as I arrived at OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg in 2006. My husband was stabbed in Cape Town on our honeymoon and the attacker later said he could see my husband was not local and therefore not on his guard.