FROM THE ARCHIVE: ANALYSIS
Pistorius to walk free — after chequered justice experience in prison
Convicted murderer Oscar Pistorius will leave prison on 5 January 2024 following a decision taken on Friday, 24 November 2023, by the parole board. It concludes a decidedly messy chapter for the South African justice system.
Oscar Pistorius will be freed from the Atteridgeville Correctional Centre on parole on 5 January 2024, having served about eight years in prison for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
This was the expected decision taken by the Correctional Supervision and Parole Board. Legal papers filed by Pistorius earlier this year to challenge the calculation of his parole eligibility contained endorsements from prison officials testifying to Pistorius’ model behaviour behind bars.
The fact that Pistorius would have to approach the Constitutional Court to confirm what should be fairly basic mathematics is not an impressive look for the Department of Correctional Services.
In addition, the fact that the Constitutional Court ruled in October that the former athlete was actually already eligible for parole in March may have added some behind-the-scenes pressure to get the matter sewn up as soon as possible.
Pistorius’ experience at the hands of the South African justice system has been somewhat chaotic – which should raise serious concerns about what happens to less high-profile, less privileged inmates.
It is easy to forget, for instance, that Pistorius was previously released in 2015 after serving just one year for culpable homicide – the result of the extraordinarily lenient original sentence handed down to him by Judge Thokozile Masipa.
After about six months of house arrest, he was back in prison after the Supreme Court of Appeal overturned Judge Masipa’s culpable homicide verdict and replaced it with a murder verdict. But once again the sentencing was left to Masipa, who extended his original five-year jail term by just 12 months. This, too, was appealed by the state, with the Supreme Court of Appeal eventually imposing a 13-year-and-five-month sentence.
Absolute confusion over parole
Absolute confusion seemed to reign over the question of when Pistorius would become eligible for parole, taking into account the time he had already served. The fact that Pistorius would have to approach the Constitutional Court to confirm what should be fairly basic mathematics is not an impressive look for the Department of Correctional Services.
It has all been very messy. But there’s equally no doubt that Pistorius’ time behind bars would have been far easier and smoother than those of most inmates within the South African penal system. This would particularly have been the case since November 2016, when Pistorius was transferred from the much bigger and grimmer Kgosi Mampuru prison to the Atteridgeville Correctional Centre, a small facility which is specially set up to deal with the needs of disabled inmates, and which only houses offenders sentenced “from 0 to 6 years”, according to the Department of Correctional Services at the time.
Pistorius’ secret jail time
Given the hysterical tenor of the media attention around Pistorius’ fall from grace, the time he has spent in prison has been remarkably shielded from public view.
There is every likelihood that a similar media scrum to that which ensued outside the North Gauteng High Court a decade ago will accompany Pistorius’ January release.
The sole leak occurred in March 2015, when still images and video emerged, showing Pistorius playing soccer at Kgosi Mampuru with Czech gangster Radovan Krejčíř.
That was it – beyond a prison visit paid to Pistorius by his former high school head of house Bill Schroder, which he subsequently discussed with the makers of the controversial documentary series The Trials of Oscar Pistorius, and revealed that Pistorius had grown a beard and taken up smoking.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Oscar Pistorius faces parole board, and Reeva Steenkamp’s mother – this is what it decided
But if the relative silence around his incarceration may give the impression that media interest in Pistorius has waned, the reaction on Friday to the news of his parole should correct that assumption. Major international media outlets had, in some cases, prominently published the news before South African news sites had even gotten around to it.
There is every likelihood that a similar media scrum to that which ensued outside the North Gauteng High Court a decade ago will accompany Pistorius’ January release. Demand for the first post-prison photograph of the disgraced athlete will be exceptionally high – although the Department of Correctional Services will presumably do everything in its power to try to ensure that he is released as discreetly as possible.
Pistorius family happiness, Steenkamp agony
Pistorius turned 37 years old this week. He has spent the majority of the last decade behind bars, believed to have left prison after his re-incarceration on only two occasions: for the funeral of his grandmother, and to attend a victim/offender dialogue with Reeva Steenkamps’ parents in their hometown of Gqeberha in 2021.
The latter was a prerequisite for the future awarding of parole. In a poignant and dignified victim impact statement read out on her behalf on Friday, however, Reeva’s mother June Steenkamp has made it clear that Pistorius will not be walking free with her full blessing.
“I am not convinced that Oscar has been rehabilitated,” she wrote bluntly.
“I do not believe Oscar’s version that he thought the person in the toilet was a burglar. In fact, I do not know anybody who does. My dearest child screamed for her life; loud enough for the neighbours to hear her. I do not know what gave rise to his choice to shoot through a closed door four times at somebody with hollow-point ammunition when, I believe, he knew it was Reeva.”
When husband Barry died in September 2023, Steenkamp wrote, she was convinced that part of the cause was a “broken heart” following Reeva’s murder.
“What he meant in my life and the extent of his support have now crystallised into what remains after: an unending black hole of pain and loneliness.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Reeva Steenkamp murder: ‘Oscar Pistorius should not have had a gun’
There will inevitably now be frenzied speculation about what Pistorius will do upon his release. Will he write a book? Will he devote the rest of his life to working with disabled children as a way to publicly atone? Will he flee the media spotlight to his wealthy Uncle Arnold’s farm in Mozambique, as the family indicated was their intention for him a decade ago?
One can only hope that June Steenkamp, who has lost both her only child and her husband in the space of a decade, will be spared the media hounding to come. DM