17/03/2014

“The ‘black intruder’ argument in the Oscar Pistorius case is irrational and disappointing”

The Contrarian / By Anand Govender

South African  ‘Blade Runner’ athlete Oscar Pistorius, who shot and killed his girlfriend, defends himself with the argument that he thought the person in his toilet was ‘an intruder’.  But even if he really thought that, that argument shouldn’t hold, says Anand Govender (48). Govender, a former anti-apartheid activist–turned-engineer is the brother of Elvis Govender, who was hacked to death, aged 37, by a South African yacht owner on whose boat he had ‘trespassed’ in 1995.

Many progressives in South Africa have criticised the overwhelming publicity around Pistorius’ trial, saying this celebrity frenzy overshadows many more important issues in South Africa.

It true that it is a media circus. But the ‘black intruder’ is an important issue for South African, and possibly people all over the world, to reflect on. Many people get killed who are thought of as ‘black intruders’, even when they are not posing a threat. My brother was one of them.

What happened?

He was on an outing with a group of people from his work at the Vaal Dam, which is a popular place for people to hang out, to barbecue and go on boat rides. Elvis was with a white female colleague, crossing through the water on a dinghy, having fun. They passed a yacht moored in the middle of the dam. There were no people on it but the radio was on. Elvis had always been an (anti-apartheid) activist and was still community-minded. He thought he should switch that radio off.  They went on board, not knowing that the owner, yacht club manager Allan Stokes, had seen them from the shore. Stokes sped towards them in his own dinghy and with a machete. He chased them down into the water in a rage. He left the girl but hacked away at Elvis, calling him a ‘brown animal’, until Elvis drowned.

But surely a court of law would not accept the argument that this man was allowed to kill? The ‘threatening intruder on my property’ argument won’t hold in this case?

It was deemed acceptable at least to some extent. The man only got a R 20 000 Rand fine (some 4 000 Euros at the time, EG) and a suspended sentence.

Outrageous. That must have been in the time of apartheid?

It was late 1995 (five years after the release of Mandela and one year after the first democratic elections that made Mandela president of the country, EG). But yes, the courts were still steeped in apartheid mode then. One would hope that something has changed now. That is why I am interested in seeing how the Pistorius trial unfolds.

Pistorius claims that he really, really thought that there was an actual armed intruder in the bathroom.

That argument has a high degree of irrationality in it.  Is an armed intruder going to lock himself in your toilet? Must you shoot four times through a locked door before even asking ‘who is there’?

There is a lot of crime in South Africa, a lot of burglaries, people are on edge.

Yes and most burglars will be from the poorer and more disadvantaged communities, so they will be black. And I can understand a person being is aware of this high crime rate, being ready to defend the family. But there is an element of exaggerated, extreme, irrational aggression by some white males when they feel threatened.  They feel threatened very easily. There is a video on You Tube of a white policeman in Cape Town beating up a black guy. It happened last week. The black guy was made to take his clothes off, he had no weapons, he was not fighting, he was naked. He still got beat up. Why?

Do black or brown home owners generally not respond with extreme violence against burglars?

There are many reports of violence in all communities, of all colours. South Africa is a traumatised, violent country. Men of all races beat up wives and girlfriends –the Pistorius trial is about a white man killing his white girlfriend. But I am talking now of a particular type of violence, the type that is ready to imagine an intruder on one’s property, even when it is an irrational assumption. The type that is ready to immediately murder such an imagined intruder. I think that behaviour correlates mostly with white males.

Yet, in 2014, this is widely considered a rational defence. Pistorius’ defence is going all out to show precisely that: that the man thought he was shooting a burglar.

If that argument holds, if he gets off on that basis, if that is considered rational even almost twenty years after Elvis’ death, I will be very disappointed.

This interview was conducted by Evelyn Groenink, ZAM Chronicle’s investigations editor.