Early on in his testimony, murder-accused Oscar Pistorius was questioned by his advocate Barry Roux about a Vaal River boating accident in which Pistorius was involved in 2009. The Daily Maverick has subsequently learned from eyewitnesses to the direct aftermath of the accident that at least one aspect of his testimony to the court may have been false. By REBECCA DAVIS.
On 21 February 2009, Oscar Pistorius had a serious boat accident on the Vaal River, which left him in intensive care for a number of days and required the athlete to undergo extensive facial reconstructive surgery. The boat in which Pistorius had been travelling had to be retrieved by police divers from the bottom of the river.
Initial reports had it that the boat had hit a floating tree stump. But it soon emerged that Pistorius’ speedboat had instead smashed into a small jetty, which was reportedly ripped off its poles by the impact. A photo of the jetty sent to the Daily Maverick suggests that it remains damaged today.
A Beeld report at the time quoted a river caretaker, David Mokhashane, as saying that on the Saturday “the pier was still okay” but on Sunday he saw that it was damaged.
After the accident, Pistorius explained that his inability to see the jetty was because it was under the water at the time of impact.
In an interview with Britain’s Daily Mirror in April 2009, he said: “It is a narrow river and a lot of the jetties are old and don’t have flotation devices so when the water level is high, as it was that day, they are submerged.”
“We weren’t going too quickly, probably no more than 30 kph (18mph) but we hit a pier that was under the water and I was thrown hard onto the steering wheel.”
Two boat-operators on the Vaal rubbished this notion when Pistorius’ explanation was put to them by the Daily Maverick this week. One said that the jetty was “relatively new” at the time of the accident. Another said that the idea that the jetty was submerged by high water levels was “impossible”, as this would have meant that a major flooding incident would have had to have taken place.
Pistorius repeated the claim of a “submerged pier” in subsequent interviews.
On the first day that Pistorius took to the stand in his own defence – 7 April – advocate Barry Roux questioned him about the boating accident. Here’s what Pistorius said – note that there’s no mention of the submerged pier:
“It was just my friend John and I in the boat. At a point, we were just chatting, and sitting and chatting, and at a point he stood up to, I think to light a cigarette or to make a phone call, and at that point he shouted, and I looked forward, and I couldn’t see anything. The Vaal River runs from east to west, and we were heading back west so the sun was setting in front of us, and I could only see the sun on the water, and a couple of seconds later, I just remember the sound of the propeller of the boat, I hit the steering wheel and the propeller went into the air.”
Pistorius’ claim under oath, then, was that the accident happened because sun on the water impaired his vision.
That is not the interpretation of events told to the Daily Maverick by Michael Aitken, a property-owner on the Vaal River who arrived on the scene of the accident shortly after it happened.
“I heard [Pistorius] use the story [on the stand] almost in mitigation, and he started off with a lie, that the sun was in his eyes,” Aitken told the Daily Maverick. “It made me mad.”
Aitken remembers that he was dining with guests on the evening of the accident when a staff member informed him that there were people “crying” in the river. He was unsure of the exact time, but says it is customary for them to dine after 8pm. Aitken is certain that the boat accident took place a long time after sunset, as it was extremely dark.
“I, together with a guest, Mr Markus Schorn, ran to my boat which was moored in the river, and began to search for the people who were calling. As it was very dark, it took a few minutes to locate the people. We found two men standing chest deep in the water. The one was calling frantically and the other, standing hugging himself, appeared to be in shock. They seemed to be unaware that the river bank was only a metre or two behind them, and that they could have walked out of the water.”
Aitken says he did not know at the time that the man in shock was Pistorius, but realised his identity the next day. Aitken and Schorn were told quite insistently to leave the scene when Pistorius’ family and friends arrived.
“As we were about to take them aboard my boat, a barge approached at some speed, and the people on board called out to us to leave as the men in the river were ‘their people’.” (Pistorius’ court testimony explained that they were picked up by his cousin’s boat.) “Mr Schorn and I concurred in our opinion that the people on the barge appeared to be very drunk.”
Contacted by the Daily Maverick, Schorn confirmed Aitken’s impression of events.
“I concur wholeheartedly with Mr. Aitken’s statement,” Schorn told the Daily Maverick via email. “It was pitch black to the extent that we struggled with our own slow progress to that side of the river as we needed to take utter care in doing so. We used a very high powered hand-held torch to make our way there and determine what happened. Without it we would not have seen anything.”
A further individual, not part of Aitken’s dining group, whose name is known to the Daily Maverick but who wanted to remain anonymous, told us that he had an altercation with Pistorius on the river that same evening which occurred “long” after sunset, but before Pistorius’ accident took place.
Aitken told the Daily Maverick that sunset on the Vaal River in February occurs at around 7pm. This was confirmed by a bartender at a pub on the relevant stretch of the river.
Early media reports provide contrasting times for the accident, but all are much later than seven. A Citizen report put the time of the accident at 8.30pm on Saturday night. A Volksblad article published on 23 February reported: “Die bootongeluk het Saterdag kort na 22:00 gebeur” (The boat accident happened on Saturday shortly after 22.00). The phrasing of the article implied, possibly misleadingly, that the information was derived from a press conference held by Pistorius’ manager Peet van Zyl the day before at the hospital.
A Star article from the same day reported Pistorius being taken to the Milpark Hospital “late on Saturday night”.
After the accident, it was widely reported that police had found empty alcohol bottles in Pistorius’ speedboat. A Sowetan report stated that police found “three empty liquor bottles” in his speedboat. The blood alcohol limit for boat operators is the same as for motorists in South Africa. It was later claimed that many people had been on Pistorius’ boat in the course of the afternoon who might have left the bottles there.
Police spokesperson Nthabiseng Mazibuko told journalists, however, that blood samples had not been taken from the athlete. A later Times article added the detail that blood samples had not been taken because police “had not deemed it necessary”.
Pistorius has always denied drinking before the accident, despite reports. Seeking to counter the rumours, Barry Roux asked the athlete on the stand: “Were you drinking?”
“No, I wasn’t drinking, my Lady,” Pistorius replied.
A witness told the Times at the time that Pistorius had been at the Stonehaven River Pub before the accident “watching rugby and having a few drinks”. Pistorius’ manager Peet van Zyl confirmed that Pistorius had been at the pub, though he denied the drinking.
Vanderbijlpark police initially opened a case of reckless and negligent driving against Pistorius. Attempts to find out what happened to the case proved unsuccessful. The NPA reportedly later decided against prosecuting Pistorius, but the Daily Maverick’s query as to why went unanswered at time of writing.
Aitken contacted the prosecution in the Pistorius murder trial to indicate his willingness to sign an affidavit attesting to his version of events, but says he was told that as the state has closed their case, little could be done with it.
The Daily Maverick asked Pistorius family spokesperson Annelise Burgess if she could account for the fact that Pistorius said under oath that the boat accident was caused by sun in his eyes, but the individuals we spoke to said they believed this to be impossible. Burgess did not reply.
We’re left pondering the words of Pistorius’ manager Peet van Zyl, to Beeld on 27 February 2009: “Die enigste fout wat hy gemaak het, was om na donker met ‘n boot op die water te wees” (The only mistake he made was to be in a boat on the water after dark). DM
Pistorius boating accident: What actually happened?, on M&G
Photo: South African Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius sits in the dock during his trial at the high court in Pretoria, South Africa, 15 April 2014. EPA/ALON SKUY / POOL
"The world doesn't make sense so why should I paint pictures that do?" ~ Pablo Picasso