Since news broke on Thursday morning that Olympic hero Oscar Pistorius allegedly shot dead his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, South Africa has been reeling with shock and disbelief. Again the world is watching us for all the wrong reasons, as a violent nation where even our biggest heroes are trigger-happy. When would the leadership be more needed, if not now? Despite the pain, despite confusion, all we hear is a mighty silence. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
President Jacob Zuma was obviously in an untenable position on Thursday evening as he stood up in Parliament to deliver the 2013 State of the Nation address, knowing that the event was completely eclipsed by the arrest of South Africa’s star athlete Oscar Pistorius. He stuck to the script of his housekeeping speech, which was probably a wise PR decision: any mention of the incident would have fed into the international hype around the murder charge against the double-amputee Paralympian, and detracted completely from the most important event on the government calendar.
Ironically, Zuma did mention Pistorius in last year’s State of the Nation address, saying: “We must perform better in sports this year! Our star performer, Oscar Pistorius, has set the standard for the year by winning the 2012 Laureus Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability Award. Congratulations for this achievement.”
While there was no mention of Pistorius this year, his arrest for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp hung like a pall over Parliament, as it did over much of the country. It was clear from the start that this would be a massive news story and would fling South Africa into the international spotlight – once again for a story related to violence in South Africa.
The sensational circumstances around the shooting, the fact that it involved the biggest individual sports star South Africa has ever produced, and that it plays into the running narrative about horrendous violence against women, all make it a story the country cannot escape from. The probability that it could be a crime of passion involving two extremely photogenic people means that the story is likely to remain a media sensation around the world for a long time.
Since Thursday, though, there has been no word from the South African government or anyone in authority on the murder and Pistorius’ arrest. Neither the presidency, which routinely rallies us to support our sporting heroes, nor the normally outspoken Minister of Sport, Fikile Mbalula, has spoken on the matter. It is being treated as a normal incident of crime which will be handled by the criminal justice system.
But Oscar Pistorius is no ordinary South African. He is the recipient of a national order – the Order of Ikhamanga – for outstanding achievement in sports. He carried our national flag at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. He also carried the flag at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Paralympics. The country has stood behind him with every stride he taken on the track, and brimmed with pride every time he draped himself in the flag after a race.
Pistorius was the personification of the triumph of determination over adversity, rising above his disability to become a global sports champion. He was an ambassador and a role model, a motivational speaker for children and the disabled; he was the embodiment of the unbreakable South African spirit.
Now that he has fallen – he’s taking South Africa with him. It is by no means an ordinary crime, and he is in no way an ordinary citizen. South Africa’s children have been told that this is the person they should aspire to be like. It is not possible to forget overnight that we adored and hero-worshipped someone capable of murder.
The Guardian noted the following about the impact of Pistorius’ arrest on the country: “This sudden, unexpected tragedy has been traumatising to an already fragile national psyche. It has provoked debate about the country’s deep-rooted culture of violence, especially against women, and raised questions over whether Pistorius, white and wealthy, will be treated more favourably than the 160,000 inmates who endure incarceration in Africa’s most overcrowded prison system.”
Steenkamp’s murder came just a few days after Bredasdorp teenager Anene Booysen was brutally raped and mutilated, which resulted in her death. This story also catapulted South Africa into the international media, featuring the horror details of the incident coupled with alarming rape statistics, including incidents involving small children and the elderly.
In the same month Pistorius was reaching for glory at the Olympics and Paralympics in London last year, a horror story was playing out back home, when a violent wildcat strike at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana led to police shooting dead 34 mineworkers and injuring over 70 others. Again, the horrific video went viral around the world, doing irreversible harm to the country’s image.
Through all these shocking incidents, strong political leadership has been absent. It is not as if government is expected to feed the news cycle or consistently be fighting fires. However, when incidents of global import take place which affect the psyche and wellbeing of the nation, as well as the country’s image, those charged with running country have to step forward and do so.
While Zuma did acknowledge the Booysen attack and spoke at length on sexual violence in the State of the Nation address on Thursday, this as well as other similarly horrendous attacks are generally relegated to the moribund Ministry of Women, Children and People with Disabilities to deal with. This is an insult to the victims as diminishes the gravity of the problem.
With the Marikana massacre, the situation was so politically complex that government and the ANC were walking on eggshells, careful not to compromise the interests of their allies in the National Union of Mineworkers and in the business sector. As a result, the problem was shifted to the Farlam Commission of Inquiry to process, and the fact that South Africa was traumatised by horrendous violence by heavily armed policeman was ignored. That was not the kind of incident society could just walk away from unscathed.
The bar for what is good political leadership is now so low that South Africans generally do not expect to be led even in times of need. We make excuses about our leaders in government having more important things to do.
During this ever-deeper numbing process, we have forgotten that politicians are elected into government to be able to lead society in the normal course of life, but also in times of difficulty. In South Africa, though, we have become accustomed to politicians sealing themselves behind darkened luxury car windows, high walls on exclusive estates, secure government buildings and lavish hotels, away from society and its real troubles.
People of South Africa are becoming used to being disappointed in people they should look up to, accustomed to scandal, fatigued by abuse of power and state resources, and somewhat numb to death and horrific violence in different contexts – road accidents, crime, protest action and sexual assault. This is neither a normal or desirable state for the country to be in.
Yet when all these incidents play out daily, South Africans are expected to look away and move on. There is no one who stands up to provide leadership, who is able to give counsel about how the country should react or to point the way forward. That is cruel: no citizens of any country should be expected to cope on their own with everything that happens.
When Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in 1997, the British people turned on their Queen for playing down the incident and not showing visible leadership in a time of trauma for the country. She eventually relented; when she did come out, her grief was there for all to see. She spoke directly to her subjects, in process helping the country overcome the pain.
Last December, the world watched the most powerful man in the world, US President Barack Obama, tear up as he addressed his nation on the shooting of 20 children and six staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. He spoke out on the day of the shooting and two days later travelled to the town to sympathise and pray with the families. It was not a sign of weakness or political expediency; it was what leaders do when their nations are in distress. He then promised, and kept his promise, that he would dedicate himself to pushing a meaningful firearms reform, possibly at great personal political cost. But that’s what real leaders do.
In South Africa, Oscar Pistorius was a royalty on his own: he projected himself as the best among us and was a rare good news story for our continuously bruised and battered country. The ugly turn that his story has now taken will further impact our collective mood.
In times like these, the leadership of the country should instinctively understand and urgently deal with the issue. While it is obviously not appropriate to comment on the facts on the criminal case while the investigation is still in progress and without all the facts being known, it should not be an excuse to remain disengaged. A young woman lost her life at the hands of our legendary figure. It is not insignificant. It at least needs to be acknowledged, if only to say “We are so sorry this happened”.
Cutting ribbons, kissing babies and smiling widely in a photo opportunity is an easy job. Leaders are made or destroyed in tough times, and South Africa produces tough times with an alarming regularity. Time to show what you’re made of, dear leaders of South Africa. Your move. DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma (Reuters)