Earlier this month, South Africa’s double-amputee Olympic star, Oscar Pistorius, was convicted of the local equivalent of manslaughter. He maintained throughout his trial that the shooting of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in February 2013 had been a tragic mistake.
In acquitting him of premeditated murder, the judge accepted that Mr. Pistorius had a deep and profound fear of crime and that he had fired his gun based on the sincere belief that an intruder — rather than his girlfriend — lurked behind the bathroom door and that his life was in danger.
Last week, South African prosecutors decided to appeal the light sentence given to Mr. Pistorius, who is white. The same day, the country woke up to the news that the goal-keeper and captain of the national soccer team, Senzo Meyiwa, who is black, had been shot to death in what appears to have been a robbery gone wrong.
The crime Mr. Pistorius claims he feared when firing shots through the bathroom door and the actual circumstances of Mr. Meyiwa’s death were quite similar. But Mr. Pistorius’s darkest fears were just that — fears.
In the case of Mr. Meyiwa it was tragically real — and unfortunately his untimely death is not an aberration in South Africa, where blacks are far more often the victims of violence than whites.
A brief glance at the data reveals that South Africa has an exceptionally severe crisis of violent criminality. Last year, over 17,000 murders were recorded by the police, generating a per capita homicide rate nearly seven times higher than in the United States. There were also nearly 20,000 home invasions recorded by the police, a figure that is widely believed to understate the reality.
As serious as the situation is, the fear of crime — particularly among white South Africans — has sometimes become untethered from reality. An example of this is the conviction that has taken root among some sections of the white community that their risk of becoming victims of crime are considerably higher than the average. This sense, stoked by the constant coverage of white victims’ experiences by some sections of the media, has fostered a grossly inflated sense of the level of violence experienced by white South Africans. So inflated, that some influential Afrikaans voices have described what is happening as “genocide.”
This, of course, is nonsense. All the data available suggest that, while per capita murder rates among white South Africans are high by international standards, they are considerably lower than the rates of lethal violence experienced by their black compatriots.
Yes, hundreds of white farmers have been attacked in their homes over the past decade. But the overwhelming preponderance of white victims of these attacks probably has less to do with a supposed genocide, and more with the fact that there are very, very few black farmers.
All the data we have suggest that rates of victimization among black South Africans are considerably higher than among whites. Mr. Meyiwa’s death, in other words, was statistically more probable than any attack Mr. Pistorius feared might befall him. So what, then, are we to make of the sense of vulnerability and persecution in the white community?
By most measures, white South Africans have done well over the past 20 years: entrée into global circuits of commerce, sport and culture, economic growth, along with the returns on decades of superior education, have meant not just that quality of life has improved, but that it has improved more quickly than for the majority of black South Africans. And yet the sense that white South Africans are now an oppressed and vulnerable minority is strong.
This fear is only partly due to crime rates, which are higher than they were 20 years ago. But the most important source of insecurity arises from a recognition — more unconscious than conscious — that a privileged minority whose privileges arose from a system of injustice and dispossession will always have to look over its shoulder. Mr. Pistorius’s fears were an aspect of the vertiginous sense of disenfranchisement that has accompanied white South Africans’ loss of power.
The death of Mr. Meyiwa — a young man with the world at his feet — has shocked the country. But in a society as violent as ours, his death, like the deaths of the nearly 50 people murdered on average every day, is, as one writer put it, an “everyday abnormality.” As fearful as some white South Africans are, the victims of those abnormalities are much more likely to be black than white.
Antony Altbeker is the author of Fruit of a Poisoned Tree and A Country at War with Itself.