Pistorius case redefining S Africa

By David Smith

As it nears its climax, the disabled athlete's murder trial is doing a rare thing, transcending race issues.

Oscar Pistorius is now seen in public only when going and leaving court. Photo / AP
Oscar Pistorius is now seen in public only when going and leaving court. Photo / AP

At the end of each day Oscar Pistorius walks back into prelapsarian fame. When his murder trial adjourns, he steels himself for a moment, then steps outside through a corridor of cameras as a bodyguard shouts "Make way!"

On the street, police restrain schoolchildren craning their necks and camera phones shouting "Keyo keyo keyo Oscar! [Here's Oscar]", as he climbs into a vehicle with tinted windows.

For a moment, the clamour is like the days when Pistorius, the first amputee to run in the Olympics, was a hero without a victim. It is a brief respite for the sportsman, who shuttles between his uncle's mansion in Pretoria, and the austere court, a wooden cocoon with its own rules and rituals, which can make the outside world seem unreal.

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Pistorius, 27, sits on a bench in the dock, by turns staring implacably, taking notes, resting hand on head, weeping or vomiting, as he is force-fed action replays of the moments that ended one life and broke his own.

Case number CC 113/13, or the media extravaganza that is "the Kardashians meet OJ Simpson" in the words of crime writer Margie Orford, reaches a critical point this week as the prosecution presents its final witnesses and rests its case that Pistorius murdered his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in cold blood on Valentine's Day last year.

What is expected to follow is the episode on which the entire trial may turn: the appearance of Pistorius on the witness stand.
It will be the most theatrical moment yet in a trial that has already broken new ground as an exercise in justice as public spectacle. For some, gavel-to-gavel TV and radio coverage is providing an unprecedented education about the workings of the courts, albeit a version that few poor people would recognise.

It is also demonstrating that, when post-apartheid South Africa is held up to the light of global scrutiny, not everything must be seen through the prism of race.

For others, however, the presence of cameras in the courtroom, and the obsessive compulsions of newspapers and websites, is a trivialising force that diminishes the majesty of the law into the stuff of soap opera. At worst, they say, as journalists tweet the accused's every tear, retch or prayer to a global audience, there are disquieting echoes of mob justice.

"I sit there with my kids and on one level it's good they get an education about the law and see that life as an advocate is painstaking and not the glamour you normally get on TV," said Craig Freimond, a writer and director. "But on another level we're sitting at dinner and still talking about what angle the blood spattered. It's all a bit weird."
Such anxieties will peak when Pistorius, once a superstar best known as the "blade runner" because of his prosthetic limbs, is cross-examined about his claim that he shot four times through a locked bathroom door because he mistook Steenkamp, a model and law graduate, for an intruder. Given the pitiful figure he cut at last year's bail application hearing and at times during the trial - heaving, shaking, sobbing uncontrollably, the whole world his prison - his defence team may have concerns about his psychological readiness.

Laurie James, a criminologist, said: "He's going to be torn apart and he knows this. I don't think the prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, will give Oscar Pistorius an inch when he takes the stand. Given his depleted state of mind, he's in a position where anyone would find it hard to deal with."

James has spoken to Pistorius during the trial and he told her he was feeling very tired. "He's probably not sleeping well," she said. "How the guy hasn't cracked by now, I don't know. It must be that he has a strong family support system and a very good legal team."

Pistorius seems likely to exercise his right to remain invisible to television viewers during his testimony, although they will be able to hear him. Some believe this could cost him public sympathy.

George Mazarakis, executive editor of a dedicated Oscar Pistorius trial channel, said: "We intimated to his team that they're making a mistake by not allowing him to appear." Mazarakis rejects the view that the televised cross-examination is a 21st-century version of mob rule. "It's not that crude," he said. "The principle of justice being done is an important one."

The 24-hour channel is believed to be pulling in more than 200,000 viewers a day, making it one of the most popular in South Africa, and its Twitter account has 114,000 followers. "We have been very careful about not sensationalising things and having serious legal analysis," said Mazarakis.

This is a case that defies glib categorisation - a rare South African story in which race has been reduced from headline to mere subtext.

Unlike the Simpson trial, there is no racial division between perpetrator and victim. Many of those schoolchildren who gather to witness Pistorius' daily exit from the courthouse are black. And what is most extraordinary about Masipa presiding over South Africa's mega-trial is how ordinary it is.

"Twenty years ago it would have been unthinkable to have a black female judge," Mazarakis said. "The respect she is shown is indicative of the normalisation of the society and how we shouldn't make too much of it."

South Africa is still far from the non-racial society that Nelson Mandela envisaged. But the unique social experiment in justice being seen to be done that is the Pistorius trial is a reminder of the danger of a single story. Chris Thurman, an academic and newspaper columnist, said: "On one level race is always explicit in South African discourse.

"But there are also public spaces where we are happy for race to be absent. We're wrong if we cling to the belief that race is the only axis on which South Africa can be understood."Observer

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