The Case of Oscar Pistorius: Life and Death in the Rainbow Nation

Oscar Pistorius.(Photo: Javi / Flickr)Western media reports are labeling Oscar Pistorius’ day in court as “Africa’s O.J. Simpson trial.” The “Blade Runner’s” trial for the 2013 killing of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, has made him an international reality TV star. Amid the global media attempts to build up the spectacle of this tragedy, there is little chance that coverage will reach beyond infatuation with the romantic entanglements of South Africa’s rich and famous. Yet the case offers more than mere spectacle. Scratch the surface of the hype and the contradictions of South Africa’s democracy stand exposed.

Pistorius as Global Icon

In his athletic persona, Pistorius symbolized the spirit of triumph that has been such an integral part of South Africa’s global brand. He was held up as a sort of “Nelson Mandela of disability” – a man without legs who rose against all odds to world fame. Pistorius’ success also became a source of national pride for South Africa: an icon seemingly without flaw. Who could speak malice about a man who learned to run so swiftly on prosthetic legs?

Then came his fall from grace. By his own admission, Pistorius fired four bullets through the bathroom door in his home, killing Steenkamp. The prosecution claims he shot her in a fit of rage. Pistorius’ defense holds that he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder. Both versions traverse the troubled territory of South African racial reconciliation.

Under the slogan “never again,” from 1996-98, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission under Archbishop Desmond Tutu became a beacon to people trying to confront a troubled past and move into a new society. But the horrors and injustices of apartheid were only partially addressed by the commission. Deep issues of political, economic and gender inequality were not resolved. The facts and opinions relating to the killing of Reeva Steenkamp reveal the lingering deficiencies.

Gender-Based Violence in South Africa

The prosecution’s version of the Pistorius-Steenkamp tragedy invokes a point of acute vulnerability for post-apartheid democracy: gender-based violence. In 2011, the Pretoria-based Institute of Security Studies reported that seven women a day were murdered in South Africa. A 2009 survey by the Medical Research Council found that 46 percent of men in three major districts of the country admitted to having raped a woman or a girl. Despite formal gender equality in the South African Constitution, as Tanya Charles of the Johannesburg-based Sonke Gender Justice Project put it, “This is not an unusual story; this is how men are behaving [in our country].”

On the other hand, accepting Pistorius’ version of events speaks to another aspect of South African violence: coded race- and class-based behavior. If Pistorius was responding to an intruder, racial logic powered his trigger finger. The unstated code in Pistorius’ account is what Michelle Alexander refers to as “colorblindness” in the United States – racialized behavior described in race-neutral tones. Thus, a “black intruder” was the so-far-unstated specter in Pistorius’ story, legitimizing his hail-of-bullets response. The fear that pervaded apartheid society is now expressed in class terms: visions of poor people scaling those massive walls that surround nearly every suburban home in South Africa. These poor people are almost all black: the disenfranchised folks whom democracy was supposed to benefit, the same folks whose daily protests about lack of water, housing and electricity have called led researcher Peter Alexander to label unrest “a ticking time bomb in South Africa.” Pistorius’s defense plays into the fears this inequality stokes. His legal strategy parallels what US analysts call the “racial hoax,” where white defendants try to conceal their guilt by blaming a fictitious black suspect whose race makes the act of criminality more believable.

Americanizing Criminal Justice

A deeper examination of crime and punishment yields yet another twist on the notion of South Africa as a land of forgiveness and reconciliation. Confronted with a murder rate more than six times that of the United States, South African political leaders have failed to focus on the historical inequalities and rampant poverty at the root of the crime problem. There may have been reconciliation for apartheid’s perpetrators, but there is none for lawbreakers in the new South Africa. The dominant ethos of criminal justice post-1994 has been punishment, rather than creating opportunities for the more than 24.1 percent of the adult population officially categorized as unemployed. Tragically, the South African government has fallen prey to the same mantra of “lock ’em up and throw away the key” that led the United States to quadruple its prison population from 1980 to 2010. In 1995, the first year of South Africa’ democracy, there were roughly 110,000 people in prison in South Africa. Today, that number exceeds 150,000, bolstered by the building of two of the world’s largest private prisons via contracts with the British security giant G4S and the Florida-based GEO Group. An equally important statistic has been the escalation in the number of life sentences. In 1995, there were 400 South Africans doing life terms. Driven by the use of US-style mandatory minimum sentencing, today there are about 11,000. Like the US, South Africa remains tied to a strategy of solving persistent social inequality and poverty by criminalizing those who live at the margins. But the strategy is just not working.

Things didn’t have to turn out this way. In 1994, the ANC’s election platform promised massive redistribution of wealth and income via a Reconstruction and Development Programme. Two years later, the government adopted a free-market economic policy that has produced a thriving layer of the wealthy such as Pistorius’s well-heeled neighbors in Silver Lakes Golf Estates and growing ranks of the more than a million households who still reside in shack settlements often without basic services. Ironically, many of the people in these communities will have their shack TVs, if they have them, tuned into Pistorius’ trial, riveted by the star power that reigns almost as supreme in South Africa as in the United States.

As the trial proceeds, the global media hawkers likely will avoid any glimpses of this picture of the inequality, violence and mass incarceration that live side-by-side with unbridled wealth. Instead, we will simply get the sensationalized “O.J. Simpsonization” of Pistorius. But the bigger picture of Steenkamp’s death is the contradictory nature of this so-called Rainbow Nation. The judge eventually will render Pistorius’ verdict; the global paparazzi will march on to the next site of dark deeds by the rich and famous; and South Africa’s leaders will pursue their version of reconciliation, which has let down not only the Steenkamp family but millions of people who stood at the side of Nelson Mandela and his comrades.