PRETORIA, South Africa — Johan Gerber is a shy, neat man with iron-gray hair, a ready smile and a quiet voice. But on the streets, he has taken to carrying an open pocket knife with a mean 4-inch blade, concealed in an envelope and ready to use.
Last month, three men accosted him in broad daylight, one of whom hit him in the stomach and grabbed his cellphone. A few years back, eight men surrounded him, held a knife to his throat and stole his wallet. His car and two trailers also have been stolen.
Gerber is afraid. In addition to the knife he carries when he’s out on the street, he sells protection to many South Africans with the same fear: pistols and rifles, and hollow-point bullets that cause devastating injuries, the kind of bullets Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius fired when he shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day 2013.
Pistorius, who is on trial for murder, is to begin his defense Monday. He has maintained in court statements that he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder when he fired four shots through a door, killing her.
South Africa has been captivated by the trial, partly because of the celebrity status of Pistorius, the first athlete to compete in the Olympic Games on prosthetic devices, and his model girlfriend. There is a cable television channel dedicated to covering the case 24/7. But some say there is another reason: South Africans’ fear of crime.
The trial has helped launch a renewed debate here about an enduring problem: One of the highest rates of violent crime in the world, and its connection to race and economic opportunity.
Pistorius has said he was in a state of terror when he opened fire, believing that someone had broken into his house. He has not said whom he feared that someone was. He wouldn’t have to, according to crime novelist Margie Orford.
“The paranoid imaginings of suburban South Africa have lurked like a bogeyman at the periphery of this story for the past year,” she wrote in a newspaper column on the eve of the trial. “It is the threatening body, nameless and faceless, of an armed and dangerous black intruder.”
Raymond Suttner, a professor at Rhodes University, said in a blog post that “black” has always been “and continues to be, a code word for criminality in South Africa.” Black South Africans counter that many who grew up during apartheid are equally fearful of violence by whites.
Some South Africans point to a lack of economic opportunity as the reason their country suffers such a high rate of violent crime. And Gerber says that half his customers are prosperous blacks, also seeking to protect themselves.
Twenty years after the end of apartheid, the country still is deeply unequal and divided, with poor black people occupying sprawling, rat-infested shantytowns while wealthy, largely white communities shelter behind 9-foot-high walls in complexes equipped with round-the-clock security guards and cameras that record everyone who enters.
Many, including Pistorius, still feel the need to arm themselves. Gerber says Pistorius paid a couple of visits to the shooting range Gerber maintains at the back of his shop.
There was virtually no crime at the gated community where Pistorius lived. But his defense lawyer, Barry Roux, has repeatedly suggested that “secure” neighborhoods are really not that secure.
The prosecution has cited the athlete’s fascination with guns, as well as his temper and erratic behavior, in maintaining that he intentionally killed Steenkamp after an argument.
According to an analysis by the Pretoria-based Institute of Security Studies, South African homicide victims are disproportionately young, black (or mixed-race) males. Only 1.8% of victims in 2009 were white, even though whites accounted for 9.6% of the population. About 87.5% of homicide victims were black, with blacks accounting for 79% of the population.
Whites’ fear of crime disrupts ordinary activities, according to a 2012 report by Statistics South Africa. About half of whites are afraid to go to parks and open spaces, compared with 32% of blacks; nearly 35% are afraid to let their children walk to school, compared with 8% of blacks; and 27% are afraid to walk to work, compared with 11% of blacks.
Popular musician Steve Hofmeyr wrote in a controversial blog post last year that whites were being killed “like flies” by blacks and that victims of black-on-white killings would fill the 95,000 seat Soccer City football stadium, claims refuted by fact-checking website Africa Check.
Hofmeyr, an Afrikaner, said he didn’t care how many other people were being killed. “I care about how many of my people are murdered,” he said in 2012. Hofmeyr’s views are disowned by moderates, yet many white South Africans like Gerber privately acknowledge crime novelist Orford’s point about fear of blacks. The men who attacked Gerber were black.
Anti-crime forums and cellphone text alert systems amplify the fear, urging constant vigilance and sending out warnings of “bravo males,” or “B males,” (code for black men) spotted in residential neighborhoods.
“B male says name is Noah. Brown jacket + jeans + beanie. Knocking on doors in York rd towards 2nd Ave, suspicious story,” reads a typical alert. Another warns, “3 black males, white top, black top, blue top?, in derby road heading towards purley park – look suspicious. They have gone down gordon road – very suspicious.”
Gerber, who lives in a secure complex with a 24-hour complement of 21 private security guards, opened his knife’s sharp, silver blade and demonstrated how he holds it when he is on the street.
After his cellphone was stolen, “I was so frightened that if something happened, I know I would’ve just gone berserk. I would use this knife,” he said, eyes widening.
Jakes van der Merwe, an army instructor sucking hard on a cigarette outside a Pretoria mall, said crime was related to the country’s high unemployment rate, which the government, run by the black majority for 20 years, has been unable to bring down.
Likewise, Elizabeth van Schalkwyk, who lives with her mother in a central Pretoria neighborhood pocked with buildings full of broken windows, cited unemployment and drugs for feeding crime in her area.
Both said they had been victims of crime. Most of Van der Merwe’s valuables were stolen in a house break-in, and he lost two friends, a couple shot dead in a carjacking. Thieves broke into Van Schalkwyk’s apartment and ransacked it while she slept.
“You can’t go out at night,” Van der Merwe said. “You can’t go home without being afraid something’s going to happen. You can’t go to a restaurant without being afraid something’s going to happen. I always carry a gun, and [so do] most of my friends.”
Under South African law, an intruder must pose a direct threat before a homeowner like Pistorius can shoot. But Sandile Memela, director of public relations at the South African government’s Department of Arts and Culture, maintained in the Mail and Guardian newspaper that Pistorius would not have been arrested and charged had the person behind the door been a black burglar instead of a white woman.
Sisonke Msimang, executive director of the nonprofit Open Society Initiative for Southern African, reversed the argument over race and violence, arguing that many blacks who grew up under apartheid’s institutionalized violence fear white violence and impunity as much as whites fear blacks.
“In our national psyche, whites (and of late middle-class people of all races) are almost always the victims of black male violence. Blacks, on the other hand, are rarely worthy of mention as victims at all. If they are, it is at the hands of other blacks,” she wrote on the Daily Maverick news website.
“Because we see whites as victims and blacks as perpetrators, our collective sympathies are always with whites. There hasn’t been a commensurate articulation of concern about white male violence as a threat to the fabric of our society.”