If ever there was doubt that the Oscar Pistorius murder trial was a truly global story, a drive past the North Gauteng High Court this weekend might have put paid to it. From Saturday, local and international media outlets began staking out their turf, erecting tents and stationing TV satellite vans. Broadcasters who hadn’t bagged one of the coveted spots across from the courthouse entrance were by Sunday afternoon relegated to increasingly less desirable positions. It’s clear, folks. Just a few months after Mandela’s death brought them flocking, the circus is back in town again. By REBECCA DAVIS.
What can we tell you about the Pistorius case that you don’t already know? Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last year, or taken a principled decision to ignore it all, the answer is: probably very little. The facts of what is known about what happened on February 14th, 2013, have been endlessly dissected: both in the media and in the ordinary social gatherings of South Africans.
Paralympic hero Oscar Pistorius admits shooting and killing his girlfriend, aspirant lawyer and model Reeva Steenkamp. He claims it was an accident; that he mistook her sounds in the bathroom for that of an intruder and shot through the door in fear and panic, feeling vulnerable without his prosthetic legs. The court’s job is to decide whether this version of events is legitimate. For Judge Thokozile Masipa to rule that it is, Pistorius’s defence team would have to convincingly argue that the athlete acted either in self-defence or in “putative self-defence” – that he believed his safety to be under threat even though it was, in fact, not.
This version of events heavily depends for its credibility on the idea that Reeva Steenkamp visited the toilet at around 3am for normal purposes, rather than because she was attempting to escape Pistorius for some reason. Pistorius’s defence argued in his bail hearing that Steenkamp’s entirely empty bladder pointed to this version of events. The prosecution will be asking why, in that case, Steenkamp locked the door and carried her cellphone to the bathroom. They will also be asking why, if Pistorius was so fearful, he did not first ascertain Steenkamp’s whereabouts, and whether it is likely that Steenkamp would not have cried out – revealing her identity – when the first bullet was shot, or when Pistorius yelled to her in warning, as he claimed.
In the first of umpteen books to be published on the case, Pieces of the Puzzle, author Laurie Claase suggests that other unanswered questions include:
Why did a man who felt vulnerable without his prosthetic legs proceed towards the threat in the dark;
Why did Oscar not see Reeva wasn’t in bed when he moved past the bed at least three times; and
Why would someone who was ‘acutely aware of violent crime’ [as was stated in the bail hearing] leave his balcony doors and bathroom window open?
These are the kinds of questions that the prosecution will be looking to exploit. They will also likely be rifling through Pistorius’s past to find evidence to support the picture of a volatile, angry young man with a flippant familiarity with firearms. The defence, in contrast, will be likely looking to remind the court that their client is a double-amputee who told UK sports writer Alison Kervin in 2012: “The only time I feel vulnerable is when I’m in bed without the legs on”.
Both sides have high-powered legal teams. Ruling that the trial could be broadcast live, Judge Dunstan Mlambo cited as one reason the desire to prove that the rich do not receive preferential treatment in the South African justice system. But of course they do: Pistorius has one of the best lawyers money can buy. For the prosecution, Jackie Selebi’s nemesis Gerrie Nel. For the defence, advocate Barry Roux, who destroyed bungling police investigator Hilton Botha during Pistorius’s bail hearing. Neither are men you’d want to have opposing you in a court case. Judge Thokozile Masipa, with a reputation for thoroughness and methodical thinking, is a former crime reporter and the second black woman on the South African bench.
From an ordinary person’s perspective, the most interesting parts of the trial are likely to be the opening and closing arguments, the witnesses who will testify as to Pistorius’s character and that of his relationship with Steenkamp, and Pistorius’s own testimony – if, of course, he takes to the stand at all. There will be much pouring over ballistics and forensics which is likely to be tedious in parts. There will probably be trials within the trial, sideshow applications and interruptions. The case is scheduled to run for 14 days, but the smart money has it pegged for more like six weeks.
The media is banking on the public appetite for this trial being very, very high: significant investments are being made in coverage both locally and internationally. The media presence outside the North Gauteng High Court on rainy Sunday, almost 24 hours before the trial was due to start, was reminiscent only of the attention paid to the illness and death of Nelson Mandela. Sections of the public in turn blame the media for hyping up the trial in a distasteful fashion. Media players respond that they are only giving the public what they want. eNCA’s Patrick Conroy pointed out to the Daily Maverick last week that the channel achieved its highest ever ratings at the time when it broadcast an audio feed of the Pistorius bail hearing.
With much of the reputable information about the case already exhaustively rehearsed in the public domain, there is an almost palpable desperation for journalists to find new angles to keep the public hooked. Unsurprisingly, international outlets with deep pockets are leading the way. This weekend saw two ‘scoops’ landed, with Sky broadcasting never-been-seen footage of Pistorius at a shooting range, and tabloid The Sun revealing that Pistorius has a new 19 year-old girlfriend, who they couldn’t resist terming a “blade stunner”.
Compared to these guys, South African journalists seem like kittens. This was a point convincingly made over the weekend by the Mail & Guardian’s Phillip de Wet, who wrote about his concern that coverage of the trial may be a race to the bottom if South African media houses try to play by the same rules as the ruthless British tabloids and broadcasters. These include almost certainly paying for stories – how did Sky obtain their shooting-range footage? – and harassing state witnesses and police officers, as reported by the Sunday Times. The Leveson Inquiry into the ethics of the British press has cast some unflattering light on how, exactly, scoops have been landed by tabloids in the recent past – including phone-hacking. The Sunday Times reported that there have been attempts to access the phone records of some witnesses. This is not pretty stuff.
The grim truth is that there is big money and major reputations to be made off the Pistorius trial. Which means, to put it more chillingly, that there is money and reputations to be made off the killing of a 29 year-old woman. In fact, it would be interesting to know how much money will be ploughed into the economy of Pretoria as a result of this trial, as journalists descend. The last time there were this many global eyes trained on South Africa’s administrative capital, the occasion was Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as South Africa’s first black president in 1994.
As the trial opens on Monday, it’s worth reflecting on why the trial is considered so newsworthy and fascinating. Some of the answers are pat and easy. Because Pistorius was an international celebrity, the most recognized face at the London Olympics other than Usain Bolt, and a poster-boy for overcoming adversity. Because both Pistorius and Steenkamp were young and attractive, and make for great photo spreads.
Other answers are less straightforward, and more discomforting. One may be that there’s a special sense of betrayal when sportspeople do wrong, because we keep making the age-old mistake of conflating physical prowess with spiritual virtue. Another might be that there is a ghoulish schadenfreude in seeing someone rich and famous brought to ruin. Yet another, as writer Margie Orford brilliantly argued, is that Pistorius’s ostensible defence plays on a classic South African trope: the white fear of the black intruder. Then there’s the fact that Steenkamp’s murder chillingly illustrates the danger in which many South African women live, against which money, brains and beauty may be no protection.
Here at the Daily Maverick, we will be covering the Pistorius trial in response to the interest of readers gauged from our past coverage. We will not be paying for stories (we can’t afford it), harassing witnesses (we’re not cut out for it), or hacking phones (we don’t know how). We will cover the story while acknowledging and lamenting the inequalities of justice that see cases like these brought to trial speedily and efficiently while others languish in the system. We will cover the story while remembering that at least three women are on average killed by their partners in South Africa every day. We will endeavour, in future, to tell more of their stories as attentively as we have this one. DM
Photo by Greg Nicolson.
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