Opinionista Khadija Patel 26 February 2013

Notes from the bail hearing like no other

In the media frenzy surrounding the arrest of Oscar Pistorius and the ensuing bail application, journalists have gone to extraordinary lengths to cover the story, including following him on motorbikes or camping outside the family home. And media analysts are asking why.

After donning the sparkling silver wristband that served as media accreditation at the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing last Wednesday, a court official asked me: “So, every time we have a murder case, can we expect all of you here again?”

She had a point. I smiled coyly.

How many gun deaths in South Africa go entirely unnoticed?

A single gun death hardly raises an eyebrow. We know that violent crime is out there, somewhere, but we prefer not to be accosted by the reality in every newspaper headline every day.

Still, every day an average of nearly 50 people are murdered. In addition to these 18,000 murders each year, there are another 18,000 attempted murders.

According to Gun Free South Africa, the Firearms Control Act of 2000 made the qualifications for private gun ownership stricter. After the law came into full effect in 2004, Gun Free South Africa said that gun-related deaths decreased by nearly half between 1999 and 2009.

However, since last year, trauma surgeons have noted a spike in gun injuries. The organisation believes this spike is related to the fast-tracking of gun licences after the minister of police promised in November 2010 to deal with a backlog of licences by mid-2011.

But we haven’t really noticed, have we?

These violent crimes affecting nobody-South Africans, those living on the fringe of formal society, rarely capture our attention so forcefully. They rarely make the headlines. And when they do, it is a momentary flicker on the collective consciousness before we go back to being outraged by the ANC.

But when it’s nicely packaged as a celebrity fall from grace, complete with a beautiful woman as a victim and an unrelenting public appetite for every trifling detail – well, that’s a different story. This was no one else than Oscar Pistorius, a national hero, an international sports star, who had shot and killed his girlfriend.

Now that was news.

British tabloids even took a break from hacking phones to travel to Pretoria for the hearing.

And fitting, then, for the sense of theatre inside the courtroom, that outside we jostled fiercely with each other to be allowed in. I only barely got into the courtroom on the first day, and the next day I didn’t get in at all. 

Along with about ten other print journalists, or scribes, as the court officials called us, we had played by the rules, waiting our turn patiently, fully expecting to be called in. Unlike some of our counterparts, we did not try to cheat our way in. And somehow we were forgotten outside.

The day’s proceedings began without us.

In vain did we point out that among us we represented the great bulk of written media in the country. A colleague from the Sowetan felt that foreign media had been prioritised. She asked why the likes of The Sun, The Telegraph and The New York Times had been allowed in at the cost of South African titles.  

As we shuffled into the overflow court, second prize as it was, I was angry at the disorder of the process of selecting who was allowed into court. I understood the constraints on court officials, but I could not help feeling hard done by. It was also opportunity for a creeping self-doubt to emerge.

I wondered if I ought perhaps to have been more assertive. Should have stamped my feet more authoritatively? Should I have been able to elbow my way to the front of the crown and shout out the name of my employer like it was the keyword to a room full of treasure?

I sat in the overflow room hoping the sound on the live feed improved, and was forced to ask myself if this was really the person I wanted to be: pushing, shoving, shouting and batting my eyelashes to get to the front of the queue.

By some quirk of fate, Nair wanted to see Inspector Botha again, and in the short adjournment that followed, we were smuggled into the courtroom by officials trying hard to please everybody.

I sat on the floor behind Advocate Barry Roux, my self-doubt repressed. I was, however, not the only person with misgivings about the ability of the media assembled there to allow South Africans an opportunity to make up their own minds about what had happened in Oscar Pistorius’ home in the early hours of Valentine’s day. 

Already another courtroom had been sacrificed to make space for the “overflow” from court C. The cases that were meant to be heard there had either been moved or cancelled, much to the chagrin of those involved.  But more than that, she said, people who regularly attended court sessions had not been able to attend this hearing. There just was no space for them. This, she claimed, prevented the general public from making up their own minds on what was being heard.

But that’s what the media is there for, we argued.

She was incredulous. And perhaps with good reason, too.

When Nair delivered his ruling on Friday afternoon, he noted that the attention on Pistorius, including the frenzied attempts by photographers to get a shot of him in the dock, was like the attention we’d give to an animal we’d never seen before. And he was right. It felt exactly like that.

At the end of it all, a woman is dead. Her loss is felt by the people who loved and knew her. Pistorius is innocent until proved otherwise. At least he can still count on the support of the people who stood outside, carrying placards and shouting their continued goodwill.

But let’s be honest here.

If we’re going to slam journalists for leeching on the death of a woman, let us not forget everybody else who sought to use Pistorius’ hearing to reclaim relevance for themselves – protestors, activists, political groups; many of whom were not operating without an agenda. And not to mention the detail-hungry public.

Let us acknowledge that the fervour around the Pistorius hearing points to our fickleness, our own collective phoniness. 

In the last week, we have all been enthralled by the dramatic fall from grace of a man who had conquered great odds to reach international stardom. We’ve shown that as much as we enjoy building heroes, we revel even more in their downfall. It bounces off our own disbelief in ourselves. We’re fixated by failure to excuse our own poor performances. No, the country is not exactly teeming with confidence right now. And the Oscar Pistorius saga has proven it. DM



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