Reeva Steenkamp (Photo: Getty)


What the release of Oscar Pistorius says about the law and violence against women

Reeva Steenkamp (Photo: Getty)

One year behind bars for the “culpable homicide” of Reeva Steenkamp sends the message that women’s lives aren’t valued, says Zoe Williams

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By Zoe Williams on

Next Tuesday, Oscar Pistorius will be released from prison and placed under house arrest – more properly “supervision” – until 2019. He was sent to prison in October last year, having been convicted of the culpable homicide of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Under South African law, anyone serving five years or fewer is eligible for parole after one-sixth of their sentence – there was actually a move to release him in August, which was blocked by the Ministry of Justice on the basis that the decision must have been taken before one-sixth had elapsed. That decision in itself was contentious: it was a last-minute intervention, thought to be politically motivated. If he were a normal convict, serving that sentence, he would have been released in the summer. The problem was, wrote Marius Du Toit, a South African defence lawyer and former state prosecutor, that the public thinks he’s “getting away with murder”.

This distressing trial was inevitably going to explode at this point; while there was vocal opposition during it to the charge being culpable homicide rather than the murder charge which would have carried a much longer sentence and no parole, the shocking reality could only hit home upon his release. The death of Reeva Steenkamp and the one year it bit out of Pistorius’s life look obscenely, dramatically asymmetrical, impossible to wave away. The terms of his house arrest include community service (it has been suggested that he should work with disabled children) and “psychotherapy to address the criminogenic factors of the crime that he committed”. It is difficult to conceive of either voluntary work or therapy as terribly onerous – plenty of people do one or both of those things for the enrichment of their interior life, without any court telling them to. 

So the entire system of justice is stained: either it has treated Pistorius as a special case, and justice is weighted so that rich, powerful, esteemed people are basically untouchable, able to sidestep it through invisible channels, the way a feudal lord might; or, it has treated Pistorius just like anybody else, in which case, how much is a woman’s life valued on these scales? More or less than personal property? The lawyer for Steenkamp’s parents said that, as far as Barry and June were concerned, nothing had changed: "They are not surprised at all by this announcement. They expected this.” Indeed, the likelihood of parole was widely reported at the time of his conviction – there’s no surprise in this outrage, just anger.

Whenever violence against women is minimised – either by poor investigation, low conviction rates, pathetic sentences for offences whose seriousness has been played down – is has a stark effect not just for the victim but for all women

There is an argument that nothing brings back the dead, and the length of a sentence, if you look at it as vengeance, will never be enough. Likewise, if you conceive of the sentence as pure punishment for the individual, that can never be enough either – how, philosophically, is it possible to punish one person for taking the life of another? You cannot take their life because that doubles the crime it attempts to punish; so you take their freedom, for a given time, the amount of which is essentially arbitrary, since it could never be comparable to an existence. However, imprisonment has another purpose, beyond the individual: the justice system is what we use to announce to one another how seriously we take a crime. 

So whenever violence against women is minimised – either by poor investigation, low conviction rates, pathetic sentences for offences whose seriousness has been played down – that has a stark effect not just for the victim but for all the women subject to that law. The women of South Africa have effectively been told that their lives are less important than certain aggravated robberies (considerably less important: there’s a mandatory 10-year sentence for various types of theft under South African law). 

It appears that the state recognises the seriousness of this, since prosecutors are still pushing for a retrial, in which Pistorius is tried on the original charge of murder; his defence team hope that double jeopardy law will prevent this from going ahead. Final say will rest with the Supreme Court of Appeal, who can either reject the appeal, convict Pistorius of murder themselves, or order a retrial. Their decision will echo decades into South Africa’s future. 


Photo: Reeva Steenkamp (Getty Images)

Reeva Steenkamp (Photo: Getty)
Tagged in:
violence against women and girls
domestic violence

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