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Ruling shows fear still a factor in South Africa

For those of us who believe in South Africa's rejuvenated status in the brotherhood of nations, a country that has broken fully from its troubled past, it's been a bad couple of days.

After 42 court days, testimony from 37 witnesses and repeated adjournments that turned a trial expected to last three weeks into one that ran for half a year, the opening of judgment in the Oscar Pistorius ca se was followed closely by all the hues of this Rainbow Nation.

After moving here 14 years ago, I cannot think of a single story that has gripped South Africa more than the Pistorius case.

So intense has been the interest that a television channel dedicated to nothing but the Pistorius trial was set up.

Reporters used to local matters found themselves followed on Twitter by a global audience of hundreds of thousands and legal pundits have parsed every spit and comma of the court case.

A person like me who has learnt to love today's South Africa had hoped the case would show a break for a country with a history corroded by the legacy of violent divisiveness.

It was one that began as long ago as the 17th century when the first Dutch colonisers to reach Cape Town erected a barrier, a thick, thorny, fast-growing hedge, to keep Africa out, cutting off their tiny but well-watered Cape Colony from what they called the black threat or "swart gevaar".

That thread has run through the history of South Africa, reaching its nadir under the ideological madness of apartheid, one of white racial superiority justified, in part, by fear.

So as the criminal justice system of today's South Africa dealt with the Pistorius case, I took strength from the appointment of a black woman originally from the township of Soweto as the trial judge, Thokozile Matilda Masipa.

Yet, when Judge Masipa began her ruling on Thursday she seemed to accept that fear played a role in justifying Pistorius's behaviour in the small hours of that morning 18 months ago.

In clearing Pistorius of murder, the judge appears to have accepted that fear of attack by an intruder was, as his defence team had argued, enough to justify the taking of a gun and the firing of bullets through a locked lavatory door.

She accepted that Pistorius noticing an open window in the bathroom was grounds for him to arm himself and take drastic action.

In perhaps the most controversial line from her ruling - and one that may well lead to an appeal on the grounds that she has misconstrued the law - she seems to have accepted that Pistorius did not anticipate that shooting through the door would kill whoever was behind it.

"Clearly he did not subjectively foresee this as a possibility that he would kill the person behind the door," she said.

Legal nuances aside, the most troubling theme of her analysis is the way it implies fear of attack is a very real feature of life in modern South Africa that in some way condones extreme reaction.

Violent crime is a reality in South Africa, one that leads to many people living behind high walls topped by razor wire and electric fences, with movement beams in the garden and bars across their windows.

But it does not follow that South Africa is any more flooded with weaponry than other countries. There are 12 guns for every 100 people in South Africa, compared to 31 in France, 45 in Switzerland and 88 in the United States. What South Africa does have is a legacy, a charged and potentially corrosive legacy. The Pistorius case shows that when dealing with the old "swart gevaar" mindset, only half the work has been done.

Tim Butcher's 'The Trigger - Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War' is published by Chatto & Windus

Irish Independent