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Tuesday, September 30, 2014         

NEW YORK TIMES


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South Africa seeks meaning in a shooting

By SUZANNE DALEY and LYDIA POLGREEN

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JOHANNESBURG » The day before Reeva Steenkamp died, she was getting ready to give a speech on a subject that she had known firsthand and that is endemic in South Africa: violence against women.

In the four months that she had been dating the Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius, she had become a celebrity, and she had big plans for using her fame to make a difference. So she canceled a coffee date with her best friend, Gina Myers, to keep working on her speech.

"She was so excited," said Myers, whose family had offered Steenkamp a room in their house when her lease was up five months ago. "She called to say she wasn't finished yet. She had been in an abusive relationship" in the past "and she wanted passionately to speak out about it," Myers said. "She said that people chose to be ignorant because the subject made them uncomfortable."

But Steenkamp's ambition to do more than modeling ended Feb. 14, when Pistorius shot her three times as she was locked in a tiny bathroom off his bedroom. Now, this stunned country is debating whether she died from the same scourge of domestic violence she was hoping to fight or if she became a victim of a national fixation on crime and self-defense.

Pistorius maintains that he killed her by accident, believing that she was an intruder who had climbed through an open window nearby. In the dark, he said, he had not noticed that Steenkamp, 29, was no longer on her side of the bed.

South Africa's prosecutors have rejected his version of events, calling the explanation unrealistic and putting forth a picture of Pistorius as a hotheaded, reckless young man with a tendency toward jealous behavior.

For now, Pistorius, 26, is out on bail, living in his uncle's house in Pretoria and awaiting his next court hearing June 4. Family members describe him as in mourning. Last week, his public relations company announced that he was holding a private memorial for Steenkamp in his uncle's house, a move that was met with skepticism in the South African media.

If there was trouble in the relationship, no one has yet stepped up to say they knew about it. Myers, a makeup artist who talked to Steenkamp frequently in her last weeks, said everything appeared normal between the young couple. Pistorius' friends, in affidavits to the court, said that he was in love and not afraid to say so. He was making plans to have her travel with him to races, something he had never done before.

A HARD WORKER

Still, by many accounts they were an odd match. Steenkamp, despite her embrace of the limelight, rarely went to nightclubs, didn't like to drink and was known for her banana bread, friends and family say. One of her favorite activities was to get in bed with a cup of tea. Those who knew her well said that she was a hard worker, always with a smile, although she often worried about making enough money to help support her parents in their retirement.

Pistorius, by contrast, liked fast cars, gun ranges and Johannesburg's night life. In January, according to the police, he was involved in the accidental discharge of a gun at a shopping mall cafe. Before that, the police said, he had threatened to beat up a man at a racetrack and break another man's legs. On another occasion, he was arrested on an assault charge and spent the night in jail. A spokesman for Pistorius said he would not comment on those matters or any others.

Steenkamp's cousin, Kim Martin, who had breakfast with the couple recently, could not help thinking that Pistorius was not at all like Steenkamp's last boyfriend.

"Her old boyfriend was much more like her," she said, "a quiet guy, family oriented."

Whatever the result of the trial, the events have sent South Africans into a frenzy of self-examination. Some see the case as yet another reminder that South Africa remains a violent society and one in which many whites, like Pistorius, live in heavily guarded communities but still fear attacks by the black majority and feel entitled to take matters into their own hands.

Pistorius, who was born without fibulas and whose his legs were amputated below the knee as an infant, seemed obsessed with his safety. He slept with a gun by his bed and kept a cricket bat handy. He sometimes went to a shooting range when he had trouble sleeping at night, cheerily tweeting about his shooting prowess and how he had gone into "full combat recon mode" in November when he came home and thought there was an intruder in his spacious house in the Silver Lakes Estates in Pretoria. It turned out to be nothing more than a washing machine.

In fact, the home invasion that Pistorius feared represents only a tiny percentage of crimes in South Africa and is even more rare within gated communities like his, which are often protected by brick walls, electric fences, motion sensors and video cameras. Of the 2 million serious crimes reported every year, roughly 16,000 are home invasion robberies, according to Rudolph Zinn, a criminologist at the University of South Africa. The vast majority of violent crime is committed by blacks and against blacks.

Some columnists here have criticized Pistorius for saying that he was worried for his safety when he shot into the small toilet enclosure without waiting to hear the intruder's voice.

"The man dubbed as the blade runner has articulated, to the point of triteness, the most popularly espoused white, middle-class South African paranoia," Niren Tolsi wrote in a commentary for the weekly Mail and Guardian.

For those more inclined to believe that he shot Steenkamp in a rage, her death focused the spotlight on violence against women. And just as the shooting of young children at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., seemed to grab America's attention in a way that other mass murders had not, the death of Steenkamp set off an outpouring of soul searching about the macho culture of South African men.

"This is very much linked to a dominant South African masculinity in which guns are an archetypal symbol of masculine strength," said Rachel Jewkes, director of the Gender and Health Research Unit of the South African Medical Research Council.

Others are skeptical about Pistorius' claim that he was not wearing his prosthetics at the time of the shooting and hence felt more vulnerable. One colleague of Steenkamp asked why someone who felt scared did not simply call the police or get out of the room.

But there are also ample doubts about the police force, which is notoriously inept at investigating serious crime. Even at this early stage, the performance of the police has been far from convincing.

Their initial assertion that there had "previously been allegations of a domestic nature" involving Pistorius has not yet been supported in court. The lead officer in the case, Hilton Botha, turned out to be facing attempted murder charges of his own. And he told the court that testosterone had been found at the scene, although the substance had not been tested. It was later identified as Testis compositum, which Pistorius' publicity agent said he used for "muscle recovery" but is also injected for sexual enhancement.

Because there is only one survivor of the events that night, the case against Pistorius will inevitably rely heavily on forensic and ballistic evidence, experts say. Some worry whether the police are capable.

"I have no confidence in them whatsoever," said David Klatzow, a leading forensic expert. "It grieves me, it embarrasses me, and it embarrasses many of the last remaining competent people who remain in the police force."

Pistorius' sudden fall from grace shocked many in South Africa and elsewhere, including some people who knew him. In much of the country, he was a beloved symbol of the power of will over adversity.

"He seemed really down-to-earth, extremely gracious, not arrogant, not your typical Olympic or professional athlete," said Steven Ungerleider, a U.S. sports psychologist who had met Pistorius on several occasions.

Still, Ungerleider said, "I have seen and interviewed people who come across as very gracious, and we find out later that they have had some anger management issues or had issues with jealousy."

UNSAVORY BEHAVIOR

Some South African journalists are, in fact, taking themselves to task for failing to highlight more of Pistorius' less savory behavior.

He crashed a speedboat on the Vaal River in 2009, injuring himself badly and ending up in intensive care. No charges were filed, but photographs at the scene showed empty bottles of alcohol on the boat.

That year, he was arrested on an assault charge after an altercation with a female guest at a party at his home. Pistorius has said that the woman was drunk and that after he asked her to leave she returned to get her purse and tried to break down his door. But the woman, Cassidy Taylor-Memmory, who also lives at Silver Estates, tells a different story.

According to her lawyer, Taylor-Memmory was a friend of Pistorius' girlfriend at the time. After the couple had a fight during the barbecue, she left the party with her friend but returned to get her belongings. At that point, Pistorius slammed the door so hard a piece of the doorway broke off and hit Taylor-Memmory's leg, injuring her enough to require surgery.

The prosecutor decided there was not enough evidence to proceed with the assault charge, her lawyer said, and both sides have sued over the altercation.

"It was a bit of a mass confusion," Pistorius said in a television interview at the time. "It ended up turning completely sour. I had to spend the night in jail, which I never thought I would have to do. It was quite hectic."

According to the police, Pistorius was also involved in a verbal altercation at a racetrack with the boyfriend of one of his ex-girlfriends in which he threatened to beat the man. Mark Batchelor, a friend of the man, confronted Pistorius later, and the runner threatened to break his legs, Batchelor said.

During a television interview, Batchelor described Pistorius as possessive and obsessed with his own fame.

"I think Oscar got into that status where every woman wanted him, every business wanted to do business with him," Batchelor said. "He started believing that."

Another episode that raised eyebrows took place in January, at a popular cafe in a suburban Johannesburg shopping mall. A friend passed a handgun to Pistorius under a table, and the gun went off, witnesses said.

The event was not reported to the police, and the friend took the blame for the gunshot, Kevin Lerena, a boxer and acquaintance of Pistorius who was there at the time, said in a televised interview. Lerena said the gun had gone off by mistake, missing his toe by less than an inch.

"You know, we are men, we are guys," Lerena said. "People go out and have drinks and have fun. Whether testosterone is flying and tempers are flying, that's normal. Never, ever did it come across that I thought he had demons or bad vibes about him."

Steenkamp was introduced to Pistorius by a mutual friend, Justin Divaris, who owns a car dealership and had asked Pistorius to be an ambassador for his business. Divaris was sponsoring an event at the Kyalami racetrack and invited both of them to sit at his table, according to an affidavit he gave to the court.

The attraction between Pistorius and Steenkamp was apparent immediately, he said. Pistorius asked her to accompany him "as a friend" to a sporting awards dinner soon afterward. Later that night, he told Divaris that Steenkamp was terrific and that they had "really hit it off."

When pictures from the awards dinner hit the papers, Martin couldn't resist calling her cousin. "I said, ‘So are you dating Oscar now?' and Reeva laughed. She said, ‘No, but I wouldn't mind. I admire him a lot."'

Before she met Pistorius, Steenkamp, who had studied law, was living a quiet life, working steadily but without any major breakthroughs. She was too short for runway work and mostly did catalogs and commercials. She wanted to act but suffered a lot of rejection, Martin said, adding that "she was giving it until she was 30."

When work died down for the season in Johannesburg, she would live in Cape Town with Martin for several months and work there. But lately things were looking up and she could not have been more thrilled, Martin said. She had just finished a television reality show and signed with new management.

"It was infectious being around her," Martin said. "She would take my girls into her room and they would sit on the bed and talk and talk."

"She wanted children," she added. "I think she would have been the most amazing mother."






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