‘Stand Your Ground’ comes to South Africa?

Oscar Pistorius is on trial for murder, with a defense that comes straight from the Florida of George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn.

© Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

Oscar Pistorius—the “fastest man on no legs”—is on trial for murder in the 2013 shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

The details are straightforward. On Valentine’s Day last year, Pistorius fired four shots through a locked bathroom door and killed Steenkamp. The prosecution’s case is that this was premeditated, as evidenced by a neighbor who says she heard shouts and screams from the house, prior to the shooting.

Pistorius and his lawyers, on the other hand, say that this was a mistaken case of self-defense—that Pistorius was trying to defend his home from an intruder. The goal is to center the trial on his intentions, as opposed to a narrative of domestic abuse. Or, as South African journalist Margie Orford puts it, “the psychology of a man who claims to have been driven by fear to shoot before asking any questions.”

This should sound familiar to American audiences, since it echoes the “Stand Your Ground” trials in the United States, and in particular, the trials of George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn. Both men leaned on the archetype of the black “thug” to explain their fear, and both men argued that it justified their actions.

Likewise, in the Pistorius trial, more than a few observers have noted the extent to which the South African “intruder”—like the American “thug”—is heavily racialized. “[T]he intruder Oscar insists he believed he was shooting was racially profiled before he entered the home,” writes Richard Poplak, “He was a black man, and bore along with his commercial intent a host of grievances that can only be redressed by violence.”

Orford makes a similar observation, connecting this racial profiling to the siege mentality of some white South Africans: “The figure of the threatening black stranger has driven many South Africans into fortress-like housing estates, surrounded by electric fences, armed guards and the relentless surveillance of security cameras.”

Yes, the United States and South Africa are very different countries with very different racial histories. Still, it’s hard not to see this fear of blacks as a shared inheritance from their pasts as societies where white supremacy governed the political consensus. And indeed, in both countries, formal equality for blacks hasn’t translated to fairness in the criminal justice system, where wide racial disparities remain.

With all of that said, there’s a key difference between the Pistorius trial and its thematic counterparts in the U.S. For as much as Pistorius might rely on a “Stand Your Ground”-style defense, there’s no “Stand Your Ground” law to give weight to his perceptions. Which is to say that, unlike Dunn or Zimmerman, Pistorius might see consequences for killing an innocent person.