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In South Africa, Crime And Violence Are Permanent Headlines

No place has been as riveted by Oscar Pistorius and the Valentine's Day shooting death of his girlfriend as South Africa.

But even before this sensational story burst into the headlines, South Africans were fiercely debating issues that are more or less permanent fixtures in this country — crime, and violence against women.

Crime has always been high in poorly policed black areas, and whites have felt it more in recent years as well. It seems most everyone has been victimized, and many more than once. Well-off South Africans live behind high walls, they pay private security firms to patrol their neighborhoods, they have state-of-the-art security systems, and some of them are armed.

So when Pistorius said in court that he mistook his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp for an intruder breaking into his home, he was offering an explanation that struck a chord with many of his countrymen.

Yet South Africa is also a place where violence against women is out of control, from rape on the streets to abuse between a man and his female partner. In fact, before the Pistorious case, the newspapers and talk shows were focused on the gruesome gang rape and murder of teenager Anene Booysen in a small town outside Cape Town.

Public protests and marches that had been planned around the Booysen case went ahead as scheduled this week. The only change the organizers made was to add Steenkamp's name to the long list of victims.

President Jacob Zuma has called for the harshest possible sentences for the perpetrators in the Booysen case. His government recently gave high-profile backing to a campaign that calls for "16 days of no violence against women and children."

A Volatile Mix

The Pistorius case is playing out against this highly charged background. South Africans have been watching, along with the rest of the world, as evidence has been presented this week, and with the judge granting Pistorius bail on Friday. But women's groups of all races have picketed against Pistorius, while many sports fans and friends seem to side with him.

Added to this volatile mix is a widespread and longstanding belief that the South African police are not particularly competent and therefore may not be able to figure out exactly what happened at Pistorius' home in a gated community in Pretoria.

Those concerns have already been realized as the spotlight turned temporarily to Hilton Botha, the police detective who had been heading the Pistorius investigation.

He gave testimony that seemed to hurt the prosecution Wednesday, and on Thursday reports emerged that he was facing seven attempted murder charges himself related to a 2011 shooting while he was on duty. Botha has been replaced, but in short order he reinforced the notion that the police may be unprepared for the intense scrutiny they will face.

Because home break-ins are so common, South Africa has had ample opportunity to establish the ground rules on how a victim can legitimately respond.

Senior South African litigator Paul Hoffman says the law is clear that a person cannot fire four shots into a locked door and call it self-defense. An "imminent threat" is required, he says.

What Pistorius' lawyer will have to argue is that he fired in "putative self-defense," according to Hoffman. Even if this is the case, and the judge accepts it, Pistorius could still be liable for "culpable homicide," though that's a much lesser charge that may or may not result in a jail term.

Gun Laws Easily Circumvented

In theory, South Africa has gun control laws that appear rigorous. They require a background check that includes a visit by authorities to the place where the weapon will be stored. The prospective owner must show he has a safe or piece of furniture where the weapon can be safely locked away.

However, high gun-theft rates result in a lively illegal trade in stolen weapons.

According to court testimony and media reports, Pistorius had a permit for at least one hand gun. But he also appears to have had ammunition without a permit, which his lawyer has argued was licensed to his father. Pistorious had applied for permits for another five firearms and could be liable for prosecution for any unlicensed weapon or ammunition found in the house, according to media reports.

Crime in South Africa cuts across all demographics. Poor, black areas are rife with muggings, rapes and shootings. Killers often prey on isolated white farmers. In middle-class suburbs, most residences are protected by private security firms, dominated by the international security company ADT. While not foolproof, this provides much better protection than the poor black majority can afford.

In a middle-class, gated Johannesburg townhouse, I was a victim of exactly the crime Pistorius says he feared. At 3 a.m. I walked into my living room to find what looked like four men in the semi-darkness. They almost certainly colluded with security guards at the front gate, who believed that I was away on a holiday.

At the sound of my loud hand claps, shouts and perhaps the disconcerting sight of a semi-clothed, middle-aged man, they fled. I took care to give them a clear path out.

I didn't own a gun, and this incident did not make me buy one. It was surprise and confusion, perhaps quick-wittedness or just pure luck that saved me.

Many South Africans have such stories, and their own experiences may shape the way they look at the trial of Oscar Pistorius.

John Matisonn, who was NPR's southern Africa correspondent from 1986 to 1991, is a freelance writer living in Cape Town.

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