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By now much has been written about the tragic tale of Oscar Pistorius. I don’t feel that I can contribute directly to this debate. Until such time as the courts have done their work, we must all reserve judgement. I will say though that I feel that not one but two young people have lost their lives in these tragic circumstances.

I do however want to use this case as an inciting incident; a means of engaging with a problem that is facing South African society that I feel has become our collective burden. This burden can be found not in the case of Pistorius itself (although it is implicit), but in the endless ”jokes” and comments that have been generated on various social-media platforms about this tragedy. I will not recite these ”jokes” and comments, although I am sure that most of you have encountered at least one. The only word that I can think of when I read these comments, comments that play on the tragic loss of two people’s lives, is disgrace.

This feeling of disgrace stems not only from these comment’s blatant insensitivity, but because they make visible the surreptitious logic of violence which we as South African’s seem unable to let die.

The violence I speak of is found not only in the mutilated bodies that are piling up on our collective consciousness, but also in the most secret of whispers. Racism, for instance, is no longer screamed at the top of people’s voices, but whispered quietly among friends. In some sense this, qualitatively, is even worse than if it was screamed, because it removes from the crime accountability. The ”jokes” that have haunted the Pistorius case are of the same nature. They remove from the tragedy its potency, its meaning, instead replacing it with a crude patter which distances us from the real event. If we truly felt the magnitude of this and other events of this nature, we would not laugh but cry, we would do something about this, about murder, about rape, and about the general state of our society. Instead we laugh and joke and pretend like nothing is wrong, when the truth is that in every instance of ignoring the horror of our collective reality we are complicit in making it so. I echo Jen Thorpe here when I say I am tired. Tired of people walking away through whichever strategy they choose (the joke, the sarcastic comment, the hit and run, the unreported crime) in the hope that someone else will sort out our problems. Our problems cannot be solved by hoping that someone else will have the courage to confront our collective violence.

In this sense I feel we are all complicit in this culture of violence. As subtle as it can be, we have all walked away, in one way or another, from the dream of a democracy promised 18 years ago. How can we say we are democratic and equal when we cannot share our public spaces, our streets and our parks, without feeling fear? How can we call ourselves a democracy when a woman is raped every four minutes? Some may be appalled by these statements. There is, after all, no denying that a lot of selfless and amazing acts and deeds have been done by many South Africans to help this country to its feet. Until such time, however, as rape, domestic violence, senseless acts of murder, robbery and petty crime diminish, I do not think that anyone can claim to be ”proudly South African” with their head held high. Until such time as we attempt to put ourselves in another’s position, to feel the anguish and fear that they feel, without joking about it, I do not think we can call ourselves a ”rainbow nation”.

Sartre argued that one should act as if the whole of the world were judging each of our actions. While I am no existentialist, this seems like such an important statement for the modern South Africa. Our differences have become our downfall, not our saving grace, as was envisioned. These differences, however, are multiplied and made violent when we refuse to at least acknowledge the life of our fellow citizen. Indeed, one might even go so far as to say that we have reversed that common adage, ”innocent until proven guilty” so that in all of our interactions we expect guilt and are surprised by innocence.

The violence that is perpetuated in our common language, in our refusal to help each other is increasingly becoming our downfall. We are all guilty of this, and until such time as we collectively strive towards the places we keep promising ourselves, I cannot help but feel that we live in a state of disgrace.


  • Simon Howell

    Simon is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre of Criminology, UCT. He has a few interests, most of which seem to revolve around drugs, gangs, and violence in South Africa. He was awarded a PhD in 2012, and since then has published on a number of topics, ranging from gay bashing to the izikhothane phenomenon. At present his research is focussed on policing in South Africa, and how it might be made more effective (especially in regulating illegal drug use). He writes in his own capacity.