Pistorius: A South African Legacy

Jul 31, 2014 - by Binoy Kampmark - 0 Comments

(Photo CBC.ca) The Oscar Pistorius trial has everything: a narrative about a system, a psychology, an issue spanning something far beyond the act of killing Reeva Steenkamp.

By Binoy Kampmark

The Oscar Pistorius case in the High Court of Pretoria ceased being a matter about the subject once the athlete was charged and examined in the dock.  Killings happen every day, the stuff of triviality, the prosaic in action, or the fulfilment of a basic need.  Lives are there to be taken, and for societies where struggle hounds and haunt development, it is expected.  But the recipe is, sadly, spiced by celebrity – the taking of lives becomes more fascinating when it is done by the feted hand, executed by the ennobled figure.  There is no equality in life, crime or beauty – status matters in the killing stakes. 

The alleged murder of Reeva Steenkamp by Paralympian extraordinaire Oscar Pistorius, a series of disjunctions were visible – a man triumphant over his disability but failing in emotion (the mythologized are denied their chance to be humble); a sportsman deemed supreme and yet robotic, an automaton, a machine.  The challenges proved ubiquitous. Oscar Pistorius was that man, a pained construction, a phenomenon, but also one imperilled by his own prowess.  The defense would finally have to resort to something Pistorius had always denied: that disability, in the commission of acts of brutality, may well be important. 

This case had everything, a narrative about a system, a psychology, an issue spanning something far beyond the act of killing Steenkamp.  It was sociology as well, demographics, and disability.  There were studies on the tweets on the trial in an attempt to map public opinion with frame analysis and data mining techniques.[1]  There were campaigns alleging undue racial vilification of whites. There was that every nasty motif of the unknown black intruder who dirties white suburbia.

It meant that those backing and defending the vulnerable were faced by a seemingly contradictory position: A man who killed because he did not have his leg blades (the defense line), a person who killed because he did not have his support mechanism. The shrewd analyst might spot a problem here, suggesting that a person who can’t walk might be considered in a better light because he did not have his wheelchair when the incident happened. But Pistorius was never going to escape exceptionalist storytelling.

Previous trials have called for the marshalling of psychological views, the painting of mental portraits of insecurity, cruel instability, frightful reactions.  If the man be broken, can the man be truly understood yet committed to a cell?  The case of Pierre Revière was history and psychology, and it was subsequently attacked by feminists who claimed it was a straightforward case of woman-hating.  Ultimately, all ideologies demand a way of not seeing, a form of collective myopia. 

Killings of passion and confusion are rarely clear matters.  They involve a rush of blood, a moment of terrible incoherence.  There is only one object in that case, be it death or preservation.  Unfortunately, that understanding may prove at odds to the case. Perception is everything.

Reactions and highlights

The saturation coverage of the Pistorius trial has been unprecedented. While South Africa has not been stranger to spectacular killings, or gruesome murders, the celebrity status of the event has proved peerless.  Audiences have been able to watch live coverage, something of a new phenomenon for South Africans.  “Pop-up” TV channel 199, otherwise called the Oscar Pistorius Trial Channel, did what its title suggested, focusing exclusively on the man in the dock.  The BBC created an interactive graphic about how Steenkamp died.  “Explore the scene of her death interactively.”[2]  Justice, or at least its exploration, became a televised moment, one of dramatic import.

The televised aspect lent a dramatic quality a closed courtroom would have otherwise treated as prosaic.  CNN’s correspondents felt they were seeing “CSI” episodes “replete with gory autopsy details and photographs of the crime scene.”  More than 150 photos of the defendant’s house were taken by the police following the shooting, showing a sanguinary scene of devastation, with the used gun on the floor, trails of blood, spent cartridges.  South African violence had become a live spectacle, a matter of updates and instant commentary.  Each sample of evidence was painstakingly scrutinised and analysed.  The autopsy, according to pathologist Gert Saayman, showed that Steenkamp had eaten two hours before she died, contradicting the defendant’s account that they had been asleep hours before the killing. 

The bathroom door through which Steenkamp was shot was reassembled in court.  The defense had argued that, as a piece of valuable evidence, it had been contaminated. Former police Col. G.S. van Rensburg had resigned over his handling of the piece, and was also subjected to a sustained and seemingly successful attack by Pistorius’s counsel, Barry Roux.  His recounting of the evidence was patchy at best, his powers of observations treated as suspect.  A police expert, forensic analyst J.G. Vermeulen, even swung a cricket bat at the door in an attempt to determine if prosthetic legs were on when the incident took place.  Defense counsel disputed Vermeulen’s theory that Pistorius was still on his stumps at the time.

The prosecution did prove wonky at points, with the police investigation itself subjected to withering criticism.  The handling of Pistorius’s gun by a police ballistics expert proved rather inexpert, given that he wasn’t gloved. A highly prized watch by Pistorius went missing during the investigation into the crime scene, resulting in a “body search” of officers.

Reactions to the trial, seen through the prism of celebrity coverage, became its own object of interest, with celebrity feeding celebrity.  “When is OP taking the stand?” inquired one Molly Seima on Twitter (March 28). “I need to be glued to channel 199 when he does.”  Toshpolela suggested that the channel should be kept functioning as a court channel even after the dust on Pistorius’s trial had settled.  “There are enough cases to feed our curiosity” (March 11).

Those viewing the trial saw various eyewitnesses come to life as actors in a vast, choking drama.  The defendant’s neighbor, Michelle Burger, spoke of “terrible” screams, a cry for help, the firing of “four gunshots.”  The identification of screams was one of several points of inquiry in the trial.  But as acoustics expert and engineer Ivan Lin would explain in court, those screams could not be interpreted reliably as being those of a man or woman.  The reliability of the state’s witnesses was thereby called into doubt.

The biggest of microscopes was, however, reserved for Pistorius the accused.  His psychology, his justifications, his overall view of life, were all dominant highlights.  The defense team did its level best bringing that portrait to the fore.  Daily press accounts were filed recording Pistorius’s vomiting at reliving those moments of the shooting.  In April, Pistorius testified about how the gun, the protective weapon, meant everything to him.  Memories of his mother’s fears lingered.  “She often got scared at night.  We didn’t live in the best of areas. There was a lot of crime.  She would call the police, call us to her room and we would wait for the police to arrive.”  Her response was always the same: tucking a firearm in a bag under her pillow.

The courtroom also heard how Pistorius’s 2009 boating accident, one that subjected his face to horrendous injuries, made doctors place him in an induced coma.  “I was a lot more vigilant of losing my life after that. I became quite fearful, I became quite withdrawn.”

Little wonder, then, that this has been the trial of doctors, physicians and psychologists.  On Day 34 of the trial, orthopaedic surgeon Gerald Versfeld was called. The portrait of Pistorius, less a super figure than one who was markedly fragile, was encouraged.  It was he who bolstered suggestions of vulnerability, reading a statement from Pistorius that spoke of the dog knocking him over “many times.”

Disability in context

The issue of disability has also loomed large.  It had to for the defense, which decided to see it as vital to the Blade Runner image.  Those favoring the prosecuting side have tended to marginalize, if not exclude it as a grounds for consideration.  Advocates have demurred – such matters are vital to the overall setting of the incident.  But any Blade Runner argument can cut both ways – it suggests a machine in action, a beast out of control, or it suggests a being susceptible to weaknesses precisely because of that physical state.

Pistorius had argued against the very idea that he was disabled.  But that was in 2007, when he told the New York Times why he refused to park in disabled bays.  “There’s nothing I can’t do that able-bodied athletes can do.” For Pistorius, a disability did not preclude other abilities. What of those “millions and millions of abilities they have?  So what if you have a leg or two missing?”  Michael Sokolove, in interviewing Pistorius for the paper, found “an athlete’s disposition, that of a person who believes himself to be a royalty of a certain kind – a prince of the physical world.”

The approach of the defense has come full circle on the matter.  The princeling had well and truly fallen from the elite set.  Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Meryl Vorster diagnosed Pistorius as a sufferer of Generalised Anxiety Disorder.  Defense witness Wayne Derman, a professor of sports medicine at University of Cape Town, was brought to testify that Pistorius feared more than those without disability.  “Disability never sleeps.”  Works such as Nick van der Leek’s Recidivist Acts (2014) investigate the nature of Pistorius’s disability and also reiterate the theme.

Such anxiety acted as an incentive, an adrenalin push making him more susceptible to action.  He nursed a “profound fear of crime,” had developed an “exaggerated fight response” (BBC News, July 3).  This was Pistorius bifurcated, two forms of him in operation, the darker side having killed Steenkamp.

Gender violence and hidden truths

One particularly dark side of Pistorius’s conduct was, according to  Lisa Vetten of the University of Witwatersrand, “that not all violence against white women in South Africa is carried out by black men” (The Conversation, May 14). Accordingly, the rate of non-intimate homicide may have fallen in South Africa, but by 2009, the leading cause of female homicide was intimate femicide.[3] This tends to derail arguments of terrified estrangement between the races, focusing on violence committed within racial groups than between racial groups.

In the aftermath of the shooting of Steenkamp in February 2013, South Africa’s minister of women, children and people with disabilities pointed the finger at austere, possessive Calvinism and its attitude to women.  For Minister Lulu Xingwana, “Young Afrikaner men are brought up in the Calvinist religion believing that they own a woman, they own a child, they own everything and therefore they take that life because they own it” (News 24, Feb. 27, 2013). 

Jan Bosman, secretary of the Afrikanerbond, would retort that, “This minister has proven beyond any doubt that she is not fit to hold office in a constitutional democracy” (News 24, Feb. 27, 2013).  For Bosman, Pistorius had become a convenient “smokescreen” for departmental incompetence, notably that of Xingwana.  Afrikaner lobby group AfriForum even entertained the prospects of bringing a complaint before the Equality Court against Xingwana, citing possible contravention of the Promotion of Equality and the Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act.

Through that particular glass darkly, individuals such as Afrikaans singer Sunette Bridges would insist, along with Steve Hofmeyr, that during the 14 months she and Hofmeyr had been gathering news clippings on violence against women between 2012 and 2013, Pistorius was the only white man to have slain a white woman, the grim exception that proved a grimmer rule. 

Black men otherwise asserted a near overwhelming monopoly, dark murderous essences haunting South African society. Importantly, they were adduced to break the notion of intimate femicide, which had no truck for the amateur sleuths. The killers would be both black and unknown, though Vetten’s statistically valid point remains that such figures constitute a mere 2 percent of the female homicide cases nationally.  Other issues involve sampling methods – how they got the information to be interrogated, how the victims’ identities were supplied, what range of papers and print they were examining, and how frequently it was done.

In scouring the press, Bridges also found an astonishing ignorance about reportage of Pistorius.  This was the other side of “otherness” – particularly that Dutch South Africans were being made to fit a particular model of guilt and presumption.  Alex Perry of Time magazine had been short of a fact checker – Pistorius was not, Bridges insisted, an Afrikaner “but an English speaking South African by his own admission!” (Mar 1, 2013).  Perry had become part of the unconscious army against the Afrikaners. 

Racial assumptions

Bridges dismissed assertions that Afrikaner lagers were everywhere, congregations formed against the “Swart Gevaar” (Black Threat).  The point was made to take the shine off the Pistorius lifestyle. Do not assume that such a life such as his might extend more broadly to others of similar skin color.  Many did not live in an Edenic environment, but crippling squalor.  “Almost 700,000 of this minority currently find themselves living in utter squalor in squatter camps.”  Bridges ventured various numbers – 77 White squatter camps in Pretoria alone, with more than 430 in the country in total.  She never cites where she obtains these figures, proving rather reluctant on the reference and footnote.  They are, however, vital in that continuum of Afrikaner identity – one shaped, sharpened and padded by a narrative of persecution and threat.

For Bridges, South Africa was land and country, but one ravaged by a marauding sense of exclusion and assertion against its White populace.  That symbol was typified by such fanatical platforms as those of Julius Malema, insisting on the “Killing of the Boer.”  In a blog post on April 8, 2012, she claimed that she had “been a victim of rampant crime in South Africa six times in 11 months. My house was burgled three times in six weeks and my car window smashed three times in less than a year.”  For her, it was important to mention that, “The victims of crime in this country might not have color, but the perpetrators DO!” (emphasis in original)  It was a country beset by seven million illegal immigrants, an unreliable police force as guilty for the very crimes they were charged to protect the public from.

As Pierre de Vos, Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance at University of Cape Town, would explain (The Conversation, April 15), “at the heart of the defense is an assumption that the high crime rate in South Africa, coupled with Pistorius’s vulnerable state as a disabled person, rendered his actions reasonable.”  This is where the psychology proved sketchy with the environment. The defense strongly emphasised a society run wild, jungle mad with crime. But the gated community, by its definition, allowed Pistorius to, as De Vos explains, “Sleep with the windows of his bedroom open.” Other South Africans without the luxuries of the security community had to rely on “elaborate rituals” of security, activating alarms, locks, private security companies.

Pistorius, wealthy; the Pistorius whose witnesses were overwhelmingly white, all having come from a particular South Africa.  His South Africa that remains overwhelmingly one of celebrity, not squalor; well paid security rather than grotesque insecurity.  There is no ruthless Hobbesian nature here of nasty, brutish and short lives.  If press reports of a brawl in a Johannesburg night club with a taunting customer are to be believed, Pistorius has no fear reminding individuals that he comes from a family that “owns” the South African president.[4] 

Summing arguments

Pistorius, when the judgment is handed down, may well have been the exception that proved several rules – be it on disability, gender violence and his country. His defense team will be drawing upon his psychological profile, reminding the court of a man vulnerable and traumatised even before he raised his weapon in fear. His strength was merely a product of that vulnerability, brute physicality exercised without emotional calm.  The prosecuting team will do what it has done from the start: suggest, that Pistorius’s intent was always to kill, whoever it was who was in the bathroom at the time.  If you fire four shots through a door at someone locked in a lavatory, the intention, as lead prosecutor Gerrie Nel explained in the initial bail hearing, is one of inflicting death.  But for all of that, Nel has already conceded that the case against Pistorius remains circumstantial.  The rest of South Africa has already decided – it remains for the court to hand down its final ruling.


Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

[1] Ana Vimiero, Ana Carolina and Renato Vimiero, “Oscar Pistorius and the death of Reeva Steenkamp – mapping public opinions on Twitter using frame analysis and data mining,” Selected Papers of Internet Research 14.0, Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR), Denver, Colorado, USA.

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