It has been said that the Oscar Pistorius trial in South Africa will be one of those events that say less about the procedural bricks and mortar itself than it does about the society it was meant to echo. The drama consultants flogging off live coverage of a trial as suitable consumption would have been thrilled by the copy – South African athlete and role model Oscar Pistorius (the Blade Runner), humbled by acts of lethal madness when he shot his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp to death.
South Africa had never been treated to such manic “pop” criminal coverage, one that featured a “pop-up” television channel (Channel 199), otherwise known as the Oscar Pistorius Trial Channel. Stations, through their online sites, would encourage spectators to “interact” with the crime scene, speculating about Steenkamp’s last moments and the movements of her killer.
The reading of the verdict by Judge Thokozile Masipa should have taken place in a day, but a delay ensued – the judge was not going to let the audience, and the man in the dock, know just yet. She did, however, drop a sizeable, reverberating bombshell before departing: Pistorius was not guilty of murder. It did suggest an opening for manslaughter, or what is less specifically called culpable homicide. Culpable homicide is a dark area, one which either lands you in prison, or a gentle slap on the wrist. There are no strict judicial guidelines to follow, and the protesters are already marshalling their resources.
Such legal experts such as Pierre de Vos raised their juridical eyebrows at the ruling. Surely, given the behaviour of Pistorius, peppering the toilet door in question with bullets, his intent to kill had been shown, even if he may not have intended to specifically kill Steenkamp? His distress “might show that he did not subjectively foresee that he would kill Reeva Steenkamp” but said “nothing about subjectively foreseeing that he would kill who he had thought was an intruder hiding behind the door.”
The killing did not merely bring to mind the specifics of Pistorius’ own experience, affected as it was by disability and accident. Advocates made the case that violence against women in South Africa was hardly a racialised phenomenon, where the unruly forces of black vengeance combed the country for white female victims. Racialise the issue, and you have boxed the problem. Lisa Vetten of the University of Witwatersrand has long argued “that not all violence against white women in South Africa is carried out by black men” (The Conversation, May 14). Steenkamp’s fate became that most discomforting reminder.
The leading cause of female homicide was, according to Vetten, citing research from the Medical Research Council, intimate femicide, while non-intimate homicide have seemingly, judging from some figures, fallen. “The vast majority of women who are murdered in South Africa die at the hands of their husbands, boyfriends and lovers.”
Not so, claim such Afrikaner personalities as singer Sunette Bridges, who, along with Steve Hofmeyr, busied themselves for over a year with accumulating an archive of black-on-white beastliness. Pistorius, it was argued, might have been the inconveniencing blot, but only a small blot at that. That Bridges and Hofmeyr were somewhat slapdash and selective with their methods of accumulation and papers did not go unnoticed. Such sloppiness did not prevent them from making a complaint to the South African Human Rights Commission over such material, much of it run in the publication Africa Check and the Medical Research Council.
Such cases can rapidly become records for broader manipulation, a matter of gender and race. The two meet at awkward junctures in the false tidiness of rhetoric. The defence, led by Barry Roux, did attempt to bolster, not merely the argument of Pistorius’ vulnerability as a person of certain physical disposition, but also his standing as a wealthy white fearful of intruders. That was one version of the South African experience, and it proved to be a terrifying one.
From the perspective of physical wariness and disturbance, the court heard from Pistorius how the 2009 boating accident of the accused made him “a lot more vigilant of losing my life… I became quite fearful, I became quite withdrawn.”
The argument about insecurity in the well-heeled Silver Woods Country Estate simply served to illustrate a sentiment of fear gone mad. Even behind the electrified security wall, the ones who fear are the ones gated and shielded. They are bound to consume themselves.
Unfortunately, as has been observed by Bill Dixon, professor of criminology at the University of Nottingham, “The harsh reality is that the typical victim of lethal violence in contemporary South Africa is male, poor, and black.”4 Those deaths tend to rarely make the background briefings – they are murmurs on the vine of violence, the silence of normality. The Pistorius trial, however, was singular celebrity violence, a form of lively, noisy celluloid. It may well be slated to continue, if the state chooses to lodge an appeal. We await Judge Masipa’s rounding words.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge and lectures at RMIT University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org