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How Race Factors Into the Pistorius and Kutumela Murder Trials in South Africa

05/14/2014 03:32 pm ET | Updated Jul 14, 2014
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For South Africans, the Oscar Pistorius trial, which resumed this week, is serving as a national referendum on race. The killing of a beautiful woman at the hands of one of the country's most famous sons has made for compelling television. Away from the cameras in the courtroom next door, however, the family of Zanele Khumalo, murdered by Thato Kutumela (sentenced to 31 years in prison last week), has held a stoic and lonely vigil.

Zanele was 18 when her boyfriend Thato entered her home, raped and killed her, and then covered her body with a sheet to make it appear that she was sleeping. She had been dead for six hours by the time her parents found her. Still, they rushed her to hospital, hoping that she might come back.

Local media have been quick to point out the differences between the two cases. The glamorous white woman's death has received global media attention, while the murder of the pretty black woman -- also a model -- from a more modest, but still middle class, home has only been covered by coincidence: her murderer's case happens to have run parallel to that of Reeva Steenkamp's famous killer.

Many believe that justice for whites in South Africa is still speedier and more efficient than it is for blacks. Zanele was murdered two years before Reeva died and it took the police nine months to arrest her murderer. Within days of Reeva's death, the justice system kicked into gear. Of course, the celebrity factor has obviously affected interest in the case. Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who grabbed headlines as a world-class sprinter, is a global icon and Reeva was a glamorous fashion model. Despite this difference, it is hard for many South Africans not to draw the conclusion that in spite of racial progress, white lives have more value than black ones.

Absent from the conversation, however, has been any analysis of the similarities between the two young men on trial. Pistorius and Kutumela may be of different races and socio-economic backgrounds, but their treatment of their partners could not have been more similar.

One woman is killed every eight hours by her boyfriend or husband in South Africa -- the highest murder rate of women by their partners in the world. While media attention often focuses on violent assault by strangers -- the threat of hijackings and house break-ins -- the national crime victim survey shows that over a three-year period fewer than five percent of all South African households experienced a house robbery.

In other words, for South African women -- regardless of race -- the biggest threat to safety and security doesn't come from the man on the street. South African women have more reason to fear the man at home. The reality is that black and white men in South Africa kill their female partners at higher levels than anywhere in the world.

Evidence has shown that both Pistorius and Kutumela terrorized the women they claimed to love in the days before their deaths. And they did so in profoundly similar ways. It is tempting then to suggest that race should be ignored when it comes to intimate partner violence, in part because the victim and perpetrator are typically of the same race.

Yet discounting race as a factor in combatting violence against women in South Africa would be foolhardy. In fact, race is crucial. There is a false belief among many that black men are more abusive than white men, but white men are actually more likely to commit some types of violence against women. For example, the Medical Research Council has noted that white men are much more likely to murder their female partner and kill themselves.

Despite what we know about deadly violence against women by their male partners, most shelters and non-profits pretend as though race doesn't matter. Or rather, they only focus on one race: black. As a result, very few programs are focused on reducing violence against women perpetrated by white men.

The Oscar Pistorius trial takes place against the backdrop of the 20-year anniversary of the fall of apartheid and at a time when strong biases and false assumptions about race and violence persist. However, South Africans should use this moment to not just speak of celebrity and race, but to have an honest, realistic discussion of violence against women as part of the larger discussion of attacks on South Africa's women.