Today, two sentences were handed down by the South African legal system.
The first was handed down by the Supreme Court of Appeal and it extended Oscar Pistorius’ sentence from six years to 13, in the wake of his being found guilty of murder rather than culpable homicide.
The second sentence was handed down by the Eastern Cape High Court for Christopher Panayiotou, found guilty of planning and contracting the murder of his wife, and now facing life in prison.
In the case of both men, the overriding feeling is that justice is being served. Pistorius may have once been a South African hero, and we’ll never really know what happened in his Pretoria home that fateful Valentine’s Eve, but the fact remains that he fired four shots through the door of a bathroom that he knew to be occupied and killed someone.
Panayiotou is a far more sinister figure. For the victim, there’s no real difference between being killed in a fit of rage and being killed in a planned hit, but for the rest of society, it’s a good thing that a man who could hire someone to kidnap, terrorise and kill his wife no longer walks among us.
Of course, no matter how many years either of these men spends in prison, the two lovely women they killed will never walk among us again. The punishment seems fitting for the crime - those who extinguish another’s life are prevented from freely living theirs – but it still doesn’t feel like a wrong has been righted.
To hear it reported, the Inngs family (Jayde Panayiotou’s people) broke out in cheers as her murderous husband’s sentence was read out. For them, the sentence is a cause for celebration. I cannot imagine the anguish that they must feel at the fact that their daughter was taken from them by a man who had sworn to love and care for her, a man that they considered to be family.
Pistorius’ extended sentence, on the other hand, was met with less celebration. Reeva Steenkamp’s family have been through a lot as a result of him murdering their daughter and the subsequent trial and attention. The fact that some people persisted in ignoring what he did to their daughter like she was some kind of disposable character in a soap opera while continuing to support him, can only have exacerbated their suffering.
The verdict and sentencing in his trials have been long and drawn out, but it came to an end today. While this might not feel like the same incisive victory of justice as took place in the Panayiotou case (although he still may well appeal), I hope that it brings the Steenkamps some final measure of peace.
These two cases attracted much attention for various reasons – beautiful victims, affluent white murderers, senseless violence and, in the case of Pistorius at least, his fame. But they do not stand alone.
A woman is killed in a case of intimate partner violence (IPV) every eight hours in South Africa. So alongside the Reeva Steenkamps and Jayde Panayiotous are nearly a thousand women we don’t hear about – other than as part of a statistic – every year.
A strong justice system that punishes those men who exert their power over women is an important aspect in the fight against this kind of violence, but it is clearly not enough. Punitive sentencing removes murderers from society and gives some relief to the victims’ families, but the awareness of this possibility wasn’t enough to stop Pistorius and Panayiotou and nearly a thousand others from killing their partners every year
Since we live in a country where more women are killed by a current or former intimate partner than anywhere else in the world, we have to acknowledge and address the fact that there’s something very wrong with our society. And it’s a problem that’s not specific to race, culture or economic bracket.
While changing a society’s outlook on women seems an impossible task, we can eat the whale bite by bite. And most of us can take those bites without leaving our homes. We can raise our sons to understand that women are not objects or possessions, and that violence is never an acceptable response. We can call out our partners and our friends’ partners when they make light of violence or misogyny, or exhibit behaviour that might suggest they take it a step further when other people are not around. We can tackle our fathers, our friends, our sons, our colleagues and our bosses.
If we – and I’m talking about any man or woman who believes that violence against women is unacceptable – create a zero-tolerance culture, perhaps, just maybe, men like Pistorius and Panayiotou and scores of others will find it harder to justify to themselves in the moment that their actions have any merit. Of course, they knew what they did was wrong, but they didn’t know it enough, deep down, as part of who they were. We have to raise the next generation of men differently.