Cape Town swimming coach Tim Osrin was arrested last week when he allegedly beat up a middle-aged domestic worker, Cynthia Joni, in the middle of the day without the two ever having said anything to one another. Osrin was driving his car along a road, saw Joni, and stopped his car to beat her up. She sustained multiple injuries. His explanation for this — he thought she was a prostitute. He is quoted as saying “I just snapped. It is a result of the years of stress of having these people in our area”.
To add fuel to fire, when charges were laid against him, Osrin said that Joni had “trumped up the charges” because he was white, and was probably thinking “here comes my Christmas box”. A petition to Virgin Active to remove Osrin from their team of swimming coaches, and make true their commitments to a non-racist society, was successful. His case has been postponed to November 27 at the Wynberg Magistrates’ Court.
I think it’s important that we unpack this crime for the very many layers of “isms” and wrong-doings based on Osrin’s statements. He reveals particular prejudice about sex workers, and black women.
1. “I just snapped. It is a result of the years of stress of having these people in our area.”
If you’re hearing loud sounds it’s because you’ve stepped on a minefield. Unpacking the layers of privilege in this statement could take all day but let’s go step by step.
A: These people:
In this statement Osrin was referring to his belief that Joni was a sex worker. Sex work is criminalised in South Africa. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion about the decriminalisation/legalisation of sex work (if your opinion isn’t an informed one I suggest you engage with Sweat) there are certain facts that are important. These are:
- Sex workers are people and have human rights like everyone else including the right to be free from violence.
- It is not acceptable to assault someone because you disagree with their career.
- Someone being a sex worker is not an explanation for someone else’s violence.
The point that Joni is not, in fact, a sex worker is discussed in B below. But even if she was, this doesn’t legitimate his violence.
B: These people in our area:
Osrin never explained why he thought Joni was a prostitute, and it seems the only marker that identified her as one of these people in his area was the fact that she was black. The assumption then is that Osrin had some misplaced belief that black people walking in Kenilworth don’t live there, or work there, and if they do work there it’s as a sex worker. This type of active stupidity is not exclusive to Osrin.
This is linked to the racist patriarchal hypersexualisation of black female bodies, to white male privilege that says women are not allowed to choose what they do with their bodies, and to racism that assumes that black people do not have legitimate space in “white” areas like Tim’s (see D below). All of this, is quite frankly, bullshit and should no longer be tolerated as an explanation or excuse for violence.
Deliberate ignorance should not be seen as a mitigating factor in his case.
C: I just snapped:
Assault is not a legitimate response to frustration. So the excuse that he snapped, unless he had some sort of mental break that reduced his criminal liability (which I doubt because he was able to drive off in his car, and to give subsequent statements to the media), then he was directly responsible for his choice to beat someone up who had not instigated any violence against him.
If Osrin has in fact “snapped” then he should be admitted for psychiatric evaluation before he can stand trial.
Importantly, it must be made clear in this case that violence against sex workers is unacceptable. Particularly because this type of violence can be considered a hate crime — it is motivated by hatred for sex workers as a group and sends a message to other sex workers that it is not safe in that area.
D: Our area:
Public spaces, including streets, are, well, public. Anyone is entitled to walk in any area that is not access controlled. So it’s not actually your area Tim, its Kenilworth, and Joni has every right to be there.
E: The prevalence of sex workers in Kenilworth as a cause for concern
Sex workers are workers. This means that they often work in places where there is a demand for their services. I’m not quite clear on why this is a problem, and don’t agree that having sex workers in an area automatically brings shame/disgrace to an area.
However, Osrin alleges that the sex workers expose themselves to children in the area, and this is certainly not acceptable and criminal behaviour. In the same way that sex workers are entitled to be in public spaces, children are entitled to live in spaces free from violence. This behaviour, if it is happening, cannot be condoned.
So if Osrin seeks to address the issue, perhaps what would be more useful than assaulting individual women, would be a community dialogue with sex workers, sex worker organisations, community members, etc to discuss why sex work is thought to be a problem, and how the community feels about it, given that sex workers are clearly part of the community.
I think that type of dialogue is an imperative after such an incident of violence, and that it should happen as soon as possible.
2. Here comes my “Christmas Box”
Osrin’s counter allegation is that Joni is trumping up the extent of her injuries in order to exploit him in some way. This statement points to some racist and sexist assumptions:
- Black people do not tell the truth — of course, Joni couldn’t just be detailing her injuries.
- Black people are out to exploit white people and see white people only as a source of personal enrichment — through laying charges, Joni wasn’t trying to achieve justice or prevent Osrin from assaulting other unsuspecting women, but was trying to get money out of him through a court settlement.
- Women don’t tell the truth — her injuries were probably not as bad as she said they were (if you see the earlier links, he only slapped her once, so “any injuries she sustained were a result of her fall”).
These assumptions seek to undermine Joni’s right to report violence against her, and will certainly cause secondary vicitimisation. Women who are abused face discrimination from police often, and their injuries or lack thereof are often commented on in court cases. What is important is that this was a physical assault, and secondly it was an assault to Joni’s dignity.
3. Shock is not enough, we need action
It’s clear that Osrin is a complex guy — his statements are angry, violent, mistrustful, racist and sexist. Part of ensuring that incidents like this don’t happen again is removing the conditions for their acceptability — addressing the intersectionality (the ways that his various prejudices converged upon a black female body and not a white female body, or a rich black body, or a white male body) that facilitated this abuse. It’s important that stereotypes and racist and sexist assumptions like those that Osrin made are addressed at a community level.
I think it is vital for the Kenilworth, Harfield, Claremont village associations and ward councillors to host a discussion inviting all members of the community to discuss the following:
- Socioeconomic inequality.
- Sex work.
And I’m sure a number of other areas. If you live in an area where you face similar issues, then I suggest you contact your councillor and ask for a dialogue.
If you would like to do more, and participate in an event outside the court where Osrin’s case will be held on November 27 you can find details of one here.