“Normal relationships are dynamic and unpredictable most of the time, while human beings are fickle.” This statement was made by South African judge Thokozile Masipa when she gave her reasons for acquitting star athlete Oscar Pistorius of the charge that he murdered his girlfriend. Her words seem to refer to the reports of conflict in Pistorius’s relationship with top model Reeva Steenkamp (pictured at right) and to text messages in which she said she was scared of Pistorius. Judge Masipa was suggesting that accounts of the couple’s tense relationship were mere circumstantial evidence which was not to be taken into account in reaching a verdict on the case.
Indeed, the fact that neighbors had heard screams before the shooting was not taken into account in the judgment, nor were neighbors’ reports of previous altercations between the Pistorius and Steenkamp. Another point of view would be that Pistorius’s relationship with Steenkamp was anything but normal. Possessive relationships in which one partner threatens the other and mentally or physically abuses them tend to follow a pattern. Violent behavior tends to escalate, and the most dangerous moment for an abused partner is when she tries to leave. She often tries to leave the relationship when she realizes that she is in danger of being killed by her partner. And when she leaves, or tries to, he may indeed try to kill her. This is not the way most relationships go. We shouldn’t use the word “dynamic” if what we really mean is unstable, fear-ridden, or threatening relationships. As journalist Hadley Freeman argued in The Guardian:
This dynamism, according to Masipa, is why Steenkamp professed herself in messages to Pistorius to be “scared of you sometimes and how u snap at me and of how you will react to me”. (This message was prescient, seeing as, on 14 February Pistorius was to pump her full of bullets.) Steenkamp felt “attacked”, she wrote, by the person she “deserved protection from.” This, according to the judge, is a normal relationship. And thus, even though Pistorius killed Steenkamp, he did not murder her, according to the judge. Instead, she convicted him of culpable homicide. I have been in relationships. Some of them were dynamic and some unpredictable. Never once, thank heavens, have I been “scared” of my partner, let alone felt the need to tell him that. Being scared of someone is not normal. Pistorius, however, has a different approach to relationships. An ex-girlfriend gave an interview yesterday describing how she would get so “‘scared” of him she “hid his gun.”
Judge Masipa, in suggesting that Pistorius had a “normal” relationship with Steenkamp is in fact saying that society accepts violence against women in the context of intimate relationships. But the state and the judiciary have a responsibility to defend all victims of intimidation and violence, whether it be emotional or physical; they can’t just wash their hands of it by calling it “normal”.
— Catherine Vigier, Zeteo Contributing Writer
Hadley Freeman, “Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp’s relationship was far from normal.” The Guardian, 12 September 2014.