Pistorious, South Africa and Guns

February 15, 2013 — Leave a comment

I’ve been reading with fascination and sadness about the Oscar Pistorious murder case. I don’t usually follow such salacious stories — but big events in South Africa tend to capture my attention. One statistic in a Yahoo/Associated Press article about the case particularly struck me: that South Africa has the world’s second highest rate of shooting deaths, second only to Columbia.

I know that South Africa has very high crime — including a rate of 32 murders per 100,000 people that is over four times the global average. Yet I keep circling back to Mtuseni’s reaction to the Newtown shooting. He was shocked that the weapons were owned by the kid’s mother — and that people in the United States believe that owning an arsenal of guns should be legal. However, by all accounts many South Africans who are well-off own guns for protection.

I sometimes wonder about Mtuseni’s perspective on crime in his country. He knows there is a great deal of it. But I would imagine that being near the bottom of the income scale, he isn’t subjected to property crimes. And being black, he isn’t a victim of race-driven crime borne of simmering anger over past injustices and current inequities. Mtuseni was bothered by my cautious practices when I was with him in South Africa. He couldn’t understand why I hired a driver to take us to his settlement. He said that I would be safe riding the jitney bus taxis — or going to Alex township or strolling through his settlement — as long as I was with him.

I’m not a hayseed; I’ve lived in cities and actually prefer them to the ‘burbs or the country. (I’ve always said I have a decent chance when facing a crackhead who wants to rob me, but little chance when facing a bear in the country.) But I was following guidance from an American woman who travels frequently to South Africa. I will admit that her warnings made me wary. I didn’t live in fear the whole time in Joburg, but I had a more heightened state of awareness — like you needed in New York in the 70s and 80s. Having now been there once, I will probably recalibrate a little on the next trip… though I don’t believe that Mtuseni would be my magic protector.

Maybe I’m wrong on that point. Perhaps being under Mtuseni’s protective black umbrella would shield this financially comfortable white guy from South Africa’s rampant crime. (He weighs about 120 pounds soaking wet, so his brawn certainly wouldn’t do the job.) But ideals and principles and associations won’t stop a criminal. If I had brought Mtuseni into some tough parts of South Boston 25 years ago, my “white shadow” wouldn’t have protected him from racist thugs.

In the end, it’s just interesting to consider the subjective aspect of crime. We mostly think about it in terms of cold statistics. But people also color the issue with their own perspectives. Mtuseni lives in one of the world’s gun violence epicenters — yet he is shocked by Americans’ attitudes toward guns. Perhaps he has blinders on about crime in South Africa. Or maybe he’s surprised to have his idealized vision of Utopian America tarnished by our shameful reality of epidemic gun violence.

In the end, one more South African life has been cut tragically short by a gun. And another life is likely ruined. Guns… what a terrible invention, no matter what country you live in.

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