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Oscar Pistorius' Paranoia

To understand his defense, you need to understand South Africa

Alexander Joe/Getty Images

A couple of years ago, a burglar climbed across my roof in suburban Johannesburg to get to a neighbor’s house. I never saw him, only heard him, but for months afterwards, I would awaken with the sense somebody was on the roof again. In the haze of half-wakefulness, I experienced this sense as an utter conviction: The certainty an intruder was there. I never knew what to do, especially if I was alone. In the clarity of the following morning my decisions almost never made any sense. Sometimes I went and huddled in the middle of the living room, the part of the house furthest from windows, as if I was anticipating a bomb blast; other times I flicked my bedroom light rapidly on and off to send a Morse-like message to the would-be intruder to let him know I knew he was there. Once, I even grabbed a cast-iron pot and lurked with it near the door until I realized the noise I’d heard was a branch scratching the roof, put in motion by a gust of wind. After the tension of the moment dissolved, I looked with bewilderment at my hands holding the pot as if they were a stranger’s. What had I intended to do with it?

Oscar Pistorius, the famed footless runner, claims he, too, was paranoid about an intruder when he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year. The state, in his murder trial, now ongoing in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, says he shot Steenkamp on purpose. The prosecutor has used testimony from neighbors who say they heard a woman’s screams, several Whatsapp messages that portray Pistorius as jealous and tantrum-prone, and Pistorius’s history of recklessness with guns—he once discharged a Glock by accident in an upscale restaurant—to construct an image of a jealous narcissist bent on possessing his woman like property. Pistorius’s counter-claim is that he was driven less by jealousy than by fear; that he awoke after hearing noises and was so seized by terror that he armed himself and shot at the noises before even checking where Steenkamp was.

Americans have generally dismissed this narrative as risible. “I made up my mind early on that he shot her on purpose,” a friend of mine recently told me, “because his story doesn’t make any sense.” Why would a man feel as though he "didn't have time to think,” as Pistorius has claimed, when he lives in a heavily guarded security estate in which there had only been one robbery in the past two years?*

Having lived in South Africa for five years, though, Pistorius’s defense makes some sense to me. I'm not saying it is what happened that mysterious night, but it's much more plausible than some American observers think. There's a basic paranoia around break-ins here, amped by the constant coverage of crime in the newspapers. Most of that crime happens in poor, marginalized, black areas. But there’s a deep history of white South African dread of the faceless black intruder. On some level, I find many white South Africans expect to have their homes invaded someday by black burglars. They call robbers simply "them"—as in "they" stole my car or "they're" casing my house, an ever-present besieging force. The white South African journalist Mark Gevisser calls this "Mau-Mau anxiety" after the Mau-Mau rebellion that violently drove the white colonials out of Kenya in the '50s. It lurks even "in a bleeding heart liberal like myself," he recently admitted.

The dread can prompt swift aggression towards a perceived threat, which ends up perpetuating the violence it fears. Steenkamp could just as easily have been a victim of white fear as male narcissism. Many people in South Africa sit on a spectrum of paranoia bounded on the very far end by a crazed Oscar Pistorius, if we’re honest with ourselves.

Crime rates in South Africa rank near the highest in the world, but most of the time, I don’t consciously think about it at all. I love this country; I’ve thought of applying for citizenship. I evangelize for its gorgeous landscapes and fascinating communities to prospective tourists. I happily drive alone at night, I feel safe and free. The satisfaction of that feeling is a mixed one: It’s much safer to be rich or white here than it is to be black and poor.

And yet there’s a shadow life of paranoia that tracks the happy one, into which you can cross in an instant, and emotions and decisions are very different there. High walls surround every middle-class or rich house, many topped with electrified wires that constantly make a ticking noise to warn potential intruders of their power. I actually find walking in South African residential neighborhoods unpleasant mainly because of that agitating ticking, which reminds me of Poe’s “The Telltale Heart.” The newspapers are filled with gory stories of farm murders and “home invasions” in which victims are hog-tied by black gangs and tortured or raped. (“Home invasions” form the pivotal scenes in two of the most talked-about white South African post-apartheid memoirs, Kevin Bloom’s Ways of Staying and Gevisser’s new Lost and Found in Johannesburg.)

This produces a constant, low-level vigilance to strange noises, unusual movements, and rumors of danger, which you don’t notice until it trips. The journalist Joshua Hammer wrote about the horror he felt stumbling across a corpse while jogging in Cape Town, although it turned out the man had been drunk and broken his own neck in a fall. He and his wife subsequently became so frightened by a rumor of a criminal gang chopping off ladies’ fingers to get their gold rings that they moved neighborhoods and installed $3,000 worth of alarms in their house. I had been skittish even before the intruder got onto my roof. Once, hiking at night in the hills over Cape Town, I heard a sudden, heavy scrunching in some tall bushes five yards away. I thought immediately: mugger! I felt a rush of adrenaline; it was almost pleasurable. Then the thing stepped out of the bushes. It was a goat.

If the paranoia can sometimes be intense for expat journalists, it can be way more intense for white South Africans because of the historical baggage. I find Americans often don’t know that under apartheid, white South Africans were taught blacks were not only inferior but dangerous. The white government called blacks the “swart gevaar,” which means “black danger” in Afrikaans. For more than 20 years, from 1966 to 1989, white men in South Africa were drafted into an army to battle black liberation fighters in neighboring countries and told by the government that their service was preventing a tide of angry, Communist-inspired black people from swarming in and sweeping white communities away.

This suspicion of blacks’ intentions didn’t instantly vanish upon the collapse of white rule in 1994, even though Nelson Mandela assured whites forgiveness and the new black-led government turned out to be absolutely nothing like whites’ worst fears. One of the country’s most popular young Afrikaner singers, Bok van Blerk, released a hit pop song in 2009 predicting “a war is coming” in “dark Africa” that “was written on the wall.” (The astonishing music video depicts a tattooed black gangster stabbing a photograph of Bok with a knife and attacking his farmhouse with missiles.) A YouTube video purportedly showing surveillance footage of balaclava-clad black robbers creeping through a white farmhouse has racked up nearly 500,000 views since it was posted last year.

This fear has been compounded by feelings of powerlessness—whites are a wealthy, elite minority now unprotected by a government devoted to their interests in a country increasingly troubled by inequality and joblessness—and guilt. I often find a feeling of just deserts underlies the white South African fear of black aggression: the sense whites cannot escape retribution forever in a fair world. In Gevisser’s memoir, a gang of black robbers invade his Johannesburg apartment. His immediate fear is that they will treat him and his white houseguests as “animals,” just like whites treated blacks in the apartheid past.

The response to a perceived threat in South Africa can be a kind of unconsidered aggression. This, too, has a long history. There’s a favorite saying in Afrikaans: Ek hou van ‘n man wat sy man kan staan. I like a man who can stand up for himself as a man. Defending the homestead and the family against the perils of “dark Africa” was long the definition of doing good for a white South African man, starting when whites first settled the interior of South Africa in ox-wagons centuries ago.

My boyfriend is a white South African. He’s politically liberal, loves his country, and has deep contempt for its racist past. He’s also as gentle as any guy I’ve met. One night, we were walking together on a Cape Town street, and I noticed a man seemed to be tailing us. My instinct was to duck into a restaurant, but my boyfriend turned, advanced towards the man, cracked his knuckles, and balled his hands into fists. This has happened a few times. Sometimes he whispers under his breath: Ek wag vir jou. I’m waiting for you.

“Were you going to break out a can of whoop-ass on him?” I asked him, after the man turned down another street.

“What?” he asked. He hadn’t even noticed what action he’d performed. He wasn’t thinking—as Pistorius has repeatedly described his own mental state when he shot the bathroom door.

There are two stories about what happened the night Pistorius shot Steenkamp. Neither is particularly plausible, and we have to accept that something exceptional, something out of the ordinary, happened that night. Either Pistorius shot his girlfriend after a putative argument we have little evidence took place, or Pistorius shot a feared intruder he had no practical reason to fear, given the security on his estate. In America, the domestic-dispute narrative would be the more plausible story.

But for some, though certainly not all, white South Africans, the idea of the intruder, and all the fears of loss and vulnerability such a figure represents, is so powerful that it becomes real, even when it’s not real. One evening a couple of years ago, a friend introduced me to a wealthy white man who lived in a plush, safe neighborhood in Pretoria, not far from Pistorius’s estate. According to my friend, this man embodied all the positives in the post-apartheid South African experience: He had managed to prosper much more under a black-led government than his parents had under the white one. We all shared a bottle of wine and talked about the bright future.

At the end of the night, the man led me outside to show me his yard. Even in the dark I could see how lush the landscaping was, thick with swaying palms, pink bougainvilleas, and rich dark grasses.

“You have a beautiful place,” I remarked.

“I wake up all the time from nightmares,” he said. His grim look startled me. By day he felt happy, he explained. But at night he sometimes felt fearful. So many poor black South Africans were out there, he thought, still waiting to drink their fill of freedom; he felt sure they were angry, preparing to dispossess him. In a recurring dream a black man broke into the house and battered down his bedroom door. He woke up sweaty and frantic, he said, plucking at the bedside table and thinking, “Where’s my gun?”

He had lately taken to sleeping with a real gun in his bedside table, to protect himself against the man who had only ever appeared in his dreams. 

Eve Fairbanks is a writer living in South Africa.

*Correction: The article originally stated that Amy Davidson, in The New Yorker, had called Pistorius' defense an "absurdity", when Davidson had only used that word to describe a specific exchange between Pistorius and the prosecutor; this sentence has been removed. The article also appeared to attribute to Davidson a quote that Pistorius shot "before he had time to think" when that quote was intended as a paraphrase of Pistorius' own defense: This language has been clarified.