Not entirely omniscient
24 November 2014 15:35 (South Africa)
South Africa

The twin trials of Oscar Pistorius and SA’s justice system

  • Ranjeni Munusamy
  • South Africa
ranjeni on twin trials.jpg

Whether or not South Africa’s star Paralympian Oscar Pistorius intended to kill his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp will be the pivot of his sensational trial starting later this year. An unintended consequence of the shooting, however, was the international spotlight on the country’s criminal justice system – and what it revealed was not exactly flattering. Government wants to wave away the Pistorius din; what it does not appear to realise, though, is that the Pistorius case could be the best or worst PR for the country – and avoiding the issue will not make it go away. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

It is truly unprecedented that international news channels interrupted normal programming for close to two hours to broadcast live audio of the Pretoria chief magistrate Desmond Nair’s ruling in the Oscar Pistorius murder case. Because Nair would not allow live television footage in his courtroom, the channels were forced to show static file footage or live footage from outside the court while the audio was broadcast. Nobody knew how long it would last and the protracted ruling lent a further edge to the nail-biting drama of the case.

Since news broke of the shooting on the morning of Valentine’s Day, Pistorius has been at the top of the global news agenda. As the intense bail hearing progressed last week, the South African criminal justice system was also a subject of interest.

The cross-examination of the former investigating officer in the case, Warrant Office Hilton Botha, revealed the propensity of police to bungle cases, either through negligence or incompetence. But it was the handling of the recharging of Botha on attempted murder charges which revealed that the discord between the police and National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), which almost led to violent confrontations between the two arms of state during the Jackie Selebi case, has not gone away.

Ministers in the justice and crime prevention cluster briefed the media on Sunday on the work of their departments related to President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address two weeks ago. In a statement read by Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, the ministers said: “The cluster is mindful that for South Africa to secure socio-economic rights, our criminal justice system will have to operate efficiently and sustain confidence amongst investors and entrepreneurs.”

The ministers gave brief information on interventions to clamp down on violent protests, the reduction of case backlogs, increased focus on violence against women and children, the fight against corruption and the filling of several vacancies in senior posts of the criminal justice system (soon, apparently – although no dates were given).

Among the announcements made was that government intends to publish the names of government officials convicted of corruption.

“In the next few days, we will be publishing all the names of people who have been convicted in cases of corruption and all those whose assets have either been frozen or have been forfeited to the state,” Radebe said.

He said justice department officials were currently working out which communications platforms to publish the names on, whether to use electronic media, newspapers, radio or television, or pamphlets. The move was “so the public will know these rotten apples of South African society,” Radebe said.

Besides penalising corrupt officials and using public shame as a deterrent to crime, it obvious that this is part of a strategy to demonstrate the successful operation of the justice system. Government is patently aware of the negative impact of perceptions of crime and corruption on the country’s image, and needs to be more bullish in projecting that justice is being seen to be done. 

But what better way to demonstrate this than through the high-profile cases that have caught the world’s attention?

 The brutal rape and murder of Bredasdorp teenager Anene Booysen turned the spotlight on South Africa’s alarming rape statistics and shocking levels of violence against women and children. The Booysen case will obviously be watched closely in and outside the country to monitor the course of justice against the alleged perpetrators, whether the punishment will be commensurate to the levels of violence executed on the victim and how this compares to international practice. The international media has already compared the attack on Booysen and South Africa’s reaction to it to a similar gang rape of an Indian woman in December; the punishment meted out is bound to provoke similar comparisons.

Despite all this, the Booysen case is going through the normal grind of the justice system. While Zuma acknowledged her attack in his State of the Nation Address and used it to condemn the high rates of sexual violence against women (echoed by the justice cluster ministers on Sunday), there is no demonstrable action by government to show that the Booysen rape and murder is a priority within the justice system. This runs contrary to attempts to demonstrate justice in action and using the system efficiency as a deterrent to crime.

The Pistorius trial will continue to focus attention on South Africa’s criminal justice system, as it did in the past week. The commentary on the case so far has been less than flattering, with international journalists covering and following the case telling the world how Botha “bungled” it by overlooking evidence and compromising the crime scene. They also latched onto aspects of Nair’s ruling condemning Botha’s negligence.

CNN’s Piers Morgan tweeted to his over 3.2 million followers during Nair’s ruling: “The idiot police chief Botha’s incompetence has probably won #Pistorius bail single-handedly, judging by what magistrate is now saying.” Even though Morgan misunderstood Botha’s job and impact on the case – Nair was at pains to stress that Botha did not represent the state’s entire case against Pistorius – the resultant damage from the bad PR around the matter will be difficult to undo. 

In his affidavit, Pistorius has used South Africa’s high crime rate to justify his paranoia, which led to him opening fire four times on whoever was locked in his toilet.

“I am acutely aware of violent crime being committed by intruders entering homes with a view to commit crime, including violent crime. I have received death threats before. I have also been a victim of violence and burglaries before. For that reason I kept my firearm, a 9mm Parabellum, underneath my bed when I went to bed at night,” Pistorius states in his affidavit.

Friends and family speaking to the media in his defence have also talked up South Africa’s crime levels to show that his alleged fear was not out of the ordinary.

In an article on the Pistorius case in The Baltimore Sun, Matthew Durington, a cultural anthropologist who conducted ethnographic research in gated communities in South Africa, wrote:

“Gated communities, often called ‘golf estates’, are enclosed spaces protected by a number of security measures such as electrified fences, razor wire, patrols and enhanced biometric and technological measures that continue to be developed by a ‘fear industry’ that flourishes in South Africa. This fear industry emboldens a fear culture that is obsessed with crime and its avoidance. While we may see this as an irrational fear, as the majority of crime occurs in concentrated spaces among the black population (not unlike in the United States), one has to respect the nature of crime in South Africa. Despite a murder rate that has begun to decline in recent years, South Africa still has crime levels that are astronomical, with a homicide rate approximately four times that of most industrialised nations.

“The assertion that Mr. Pistorius believed there was an intruder in his home may seem unlikely in a secured home in the middle of a gated community, but it is a perception that many in South Africa will relate to. A segment of the South African psyche will understand the fear and the reaction allegedly spurred by it, despite any evidence to the contrary.”

From this it is clear that more than Pistorius’s actions in the early hours of the morning of 14 February is under scrutiny. South Africa’s crime levels and reactions to them are also the subject of focus and will continue to be for the duration of the trial.

Yet government ministers charged with overseeing the work of the criminal justice system and trying to inspire confidence in it, were reluctant to engage on the Pistorius case. Although they initially entertained some questions on the matter, Radebe eventually shut down questioning on it. Asked to comment on the friction between the NPA and police around Botha, Radebe said he was “not aware” of any conflict between the two bodies on the Pistorius case.

“I have not discerned any conflict between the NPA and the police; in fact, they always work as a team,” Radebe said.

He also said the Pistorius case should be “separated from general crime in the country”. Referring to recent shooting incidents at schools in the United States as “mad people shooting children”, Radebe said such occurrences were different to general crime. “The statistics tell us violent crime is going down. [The Pistorius case] is not an indication of widespread violent crime in the country… Crime has dropped and more people feel safe.”

But facing more questions on the matter, Radebe said: “This press conference was called to look at issues emanating from the State of the Nation Address… So I’m issuing orders that the questions [regarding the case of] Oscar Pistorius will not be answered in this press conference.”

He said the media could call the NPA and police directly if they wanted information about the case.

From the beginning, government has shied away from engaging about the Pistorius matter despite it, including the president, helping to build the athlete as a superstar and flag bearer for the country. Notwithstanding the massive international interest in the case and South Africa’s legal system, government has not been able to communicate sufficiently to fight negative perceptions about crime and the justice system to counter the onslaught.

While a successful prosecution will be the best PR for the criminal justice system, it might be several months, if not years, before the case reaches finality. In the meantime, the issues raised cannot be ignored in the hope that interest will dwindle. It won’t.

Last Friday, the lone voice of magistrate Desmond Nair rang across the world to show the justice system in action and the seriousness with which the case is being handled. South Africa’s political leaders need to take off their blinkers and see the glare of the international focus on the country for what it is.

The Pistorius case will be a test for South Africa in many ways and will continue to shape global opinion about the country for its duration. Pistorius has a high-powered team handling his defence as well as reputation management; South Africa, unfortunately, does not. DM

Photo: Jeff Radebe / Oscar Pistorius (Greg Nicolson, Reuters)

  • Ranjeni Munusamy
  • South Africa


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