Of trying to stay clear of the witch-hunt

South Africa's Oscar Pistorius competes during the men's 400m heats at the London 2012 Olympic Games. (Pic: REUTERS/Phil Noble)

South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius competes in the men’s 400m at the London 2012 Olympic Games. (Pic: REUTERS/Phil Noble)

I went to bed last night more than a little irritated and, to be honest, sad.

Since last week Thursday South Africa has been gripped by the story that Paralympic hero Oscar Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day. The “Twittersphere” and other social media is clogged with conspiracy theories, the media has been circling like vultures for days trying to pick up scraps, and there are too many inappropriate, gauche jokes about the incident to mention.

Oscar Pistorius leaves the Boschkop police station, Pretoria, after his arrest for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp (AP)

Oscar Pistorius leaves the Boschkop police station, Pretoria, after his arrest for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp (Pic: AP)

Ever since hearing about it I’ve had an uneasy feeling – which has just grown. Last year the nation was applauding the young double-amputee dubbed “The Blade Runner”. Today, it seems, most people believe him guilty of premeditated murder – based on hearsay, leaked police murmurs, social media rumours and a statement he gave at his bail hearing. Why the sudden, absolute turnaround?

Journalist Alita Steenkamp once described Pistorius as “… a very relaxed young man who always takes life in his stride. He is very focused on what he aspires to reach, but without the arrogance that you often find amongst young sport stars.” That’s the Oscar Pistorius I always heard about – including from acquaintances of mine that know him.

Along with that we’ve also read of his reckless side: of his love of fast cars and boats … and of guns – of how he would often go to a shooting range close to his home late at night when he couldn’t sleep. But does that make him a murderer?

Reeva Steenkamp and Oscar Pistorius, left & Oscar Pistorius on the track, right

Reeva Steenkamp and Oscar Pistorius, left & Oscar Pistorius on the track, right (Pics: unknown)

Many of Oscar’s closest friends, and friends of Reeva’s, speak about his affable personality, they speak of how in love the two were and that there were hints of marriage. Oscar, in his court appearance yesterday, was reported to have said how he was “absolutely mortified at the death of (his) beloved Reeva.”

“I cannot bear to think of the suffering I have caused her and her family, knowing how much she was loved,” he continued. Are these the words of a callous murderer or someone desperately trying to come to terms with the fact that he killed the one he loved, by mistake.

Oscar Pretorius sobs at his bail hearing

Oscar Pretorius sobs at his bail hearing. (Pic: AP)

The story goes that he thought there was an intruder in his bathroom. In his court statement, Oscar said he felt vulnerable because he was not wearing his prosthetic legs. He shouted a warning, and then shot four times through a closed door. Only afterwards did he realise that Reeva was not in the bedroom and that it was probably she in the bathroom. The explanation sounds ludicrous – but as Mandy Wiener, a reporter for South Africa’s Eyewitness News, notes, “South Africa repeatedly produces material that a best-selling crime writer could never conceptualise … In South Africa, truth is so often stranger than fiction. (But) the reality can hurt so badly that we don’t want to believe it.”

What is the reality here? I don’t know. I don’t know the facts.  I do know that South Africa is a violent society, that its crime rate is catastrophically high – much of it violent … Just last night two men broke into our house, while we were asleep, making off with electronic equipment and my car. This is the fourth break-in I’ve experienced, the third car stolen. I know what it’s like to go to sleep barricaded in my bedroom – the door and windows locked – just so that I can sleep semi-easily.

Was Oscar terrified of crime like he claims? Was he acting on instinct at the time of the incident, as his family has led us to believe? I don’t know, but I want to believe the best. I want to believe that it was all a horrible accident. I want to believe more in the Oscar we fell in love with than the one we are told he is now. I don’t want to be one of those adding wood to the pile upon which he is to be burned at the stake.

Because that’s what this last week has felt like – a witch hunt: few people caring about the woman who lost her life, or the man they once revered who has lost everything but his life. I want to try to put myself in his shoes. I want to pray for redemption and restoration, not throw the first stone of accusation. Who am I to accuse anyway? But on and on Twitter, Facebook and the Comments sections of major newspapers belch out gossip and rumour, accusation and slander.

Honestly, it makes me sick.

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54 thoughts on “Of trying to stay clear of the witch-hunt

  1. Hear, hear! I’m sure after last night it brings it home even more … that feeling of fear and paranoia. I kind of want to believe the best too, knowing the society we live in.

    • People also don’t seem to understand the whole concept of a bail hearing – that it has nothing to do with guilt or innocence. Now that he’s been granted bail I see so many people up in arms because “he is clearly guilty”! If only people would try to be more informed before spouting their (clearly) imbecilic opinions.

        • Hi Derek. It is true that the poor cannot always afford the bail. Some do not even seek it. Bit one also needs to bear in mind that a bail hearing is not meant to be a mini trial to assess guilt. May I suggest you read the following article which looks at bail in South Africa.

          http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2013-02-20-oscar-pistorius-case-bail-isnt-denied-as-easily-as-you-think/

          Again, thank you for your opinion, but it is interesting to note that Pistorius was given no favours in terms of his bail – in fact paying R1-million, four times the amount originally expected.

        • Hi Robin I enjoyed your article he’s innocent until proven guilty but saying he forked out 4 times more bail than the average man a million Rand to him is pocket money

        • Thanks so much for the input. You got me doing some research: in a report about bail in South Africa by the Open Society Foundation it was noted that: “The average bail amount in the three courts (they looked at for the report in Durban, Johannesburg and Mitchells Plain) was R1 736. The amounts set varied from R50 (£3.70) to a maximum of R50 000 (£3700). However the actual amounts were heavily concentrated on the R50 end of the spectrum.” They continue: “… at least 95% of those to whom bail was granted at first appearance were able to pay the amount and were released.” They do note that despite the low bail amount that some could not afford to pay it.

          Pistorius’s amount, which may have been small change to him, was 4 times higher than was expected for him to receive and was abnormally high for a murder charge. I think it sends out a very strong message, and is very good that his bail was so high, and that the conditions are as strict as they are.

          As a South African, who has worked in the criminal justice system myself, I believe that it was important for him to receive bail. I also hope, for the sake of Reeva’s family and the rest of society that the truth does come out in the trial.

  2. Jong. Premeditated or not…… Either way he is in the dwang. I understand that shooting a perpetrator while not seeing that perpetrator is culpable homicide on a good day and murder on a normal day. Things do not look good for him.

    • True, true… Things do not look good for him, and he will have to deal with the consequences of what he has done whether in prison or out. But I relate to his story … I understand how it would be possible to over-react – this country and its people are way too highly-strung…

  3. Rob, I think it is well-said. Let us love another. . . love that believes best. Love that covers over sin. Love that hopes. Love that restores.
    My heart breaks for all the people involved. I can understand so well how a split moment of fear / anger / frustration can result in an irreversible act. We are all sinners in need of redemption, whether what we do comes premeditated, from impulse, or as an terrible accident.
    Thank you for not denying the possible worst truth, yet pursuing and encouraging to believe the best, and to cover over!
    Very well said.

  4. Hey good balanced review of this tragic mess. He’s top of the news here still this evening .. every day since it happened .. and in many countries around the world (or so I heard). Shocking to hear they hit your house and took your 3rd car. That’s terrible. Trust they didn’t get your camera !

    • Nope, the camera was in my bedroom with me but they did take my external hard drive with all my photos from the last three years… Devastated… Will need to go on many more adventures to try to take new ones!

  5. Yes, we always believe the best of ourselves and the worst of others. How many times have you heard someone say – “Yep, always thought he/she was too good to be true” or “now I know why I didn’t like his face….”
    When we hear a “skinder storie” instead of measuring it’s validity by looking at why, by who and our knowledge of the person being slandered we quickly assume it to be true. We hate it when people do it to us and would like someone to just once say: “Sorry – know that person – she would not do something like that”, but we do it to others. I’ve done it, most people have – still doesn’t make it right!

    Thank you for the perspective!!

  6. Thanks for sharing the perspective of someone closer to the situation — here in Canada, the worst that has ever happened to our property is having a winter jacket lifted from an unlocked car. It’s easy to lose sight of that extraordinary privilege in a rush to judgment.

  7. Social media is an awful thing. Everyone with an opinion spouts it whether it’s based on considered thought or information or not. That’s us humans, we’re opinionated, only now we have a forum to voice our misinformation. I stay away from social media. We’re hearing about Oscar Pistorious here in Australia. I’m not sure what people are making of it. Your description of what South Africa is like has put a different perspective on things for me. I can understand the fear and how vulnerable he must have felt without his legs. And when you are afraid and feeling vulnerable then you may not be able to open to reason. I really feel for him if he is innocent of calculated murder. But being a parent, I also feel for his fiancee’s family.

    • Absolutely, Mary… It’s anything but easy for her family … and whether found guilty or not of premeditated murder, Pistorius will have to live with the fact that he killed his girlfriend for the rest of his life!

  8. Having several friends who live in and have grown up in South Africa, I’m told that safety problems, break ins and living in fear are an entrenched part of life there and the fear seeps into identity as a mild and sometimes extreme case of chronic PTSD. This is a deeply tragic story, and seems an allegory on the sustained systemic problems in S.A. (and the world, for that matter).

    Not to be all huru guru about it, but it seem there’s something cosmic at work here to teach us humans… how is it that one of the most inspiring men, who against all odds arrived at the Olympics and won our hearts as a vulnerable person who showed us we could overcome such vulnerabilities, is at the center of such a heinous tragedy?

    Either we have a bleak God or Pistorius is the proverbial mystical teacher come to inform us of something…

    Perhaps to teach us that our systems are broken; that humans are suffering beyond their own control, that we are obsessed with The Spectacle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectacle_(Situationism)) beyond what is safe and overlooked the precious fragility of human life. I sure hope that he’s not a calculated murderer but some part of me knows that even if he were, he has something here to teach me about my part in all of this.

    I live in the U.S. and even here, our disgusting Spectacle obsessed society is exploiting this news topic. It’s just the right kind of “trauma porn” media event that we consumers are all so into… how could this “sweet handicapped guy” be associated with something so heinous? My part in it is that I don’t stop watching the tv, reading the news, commenting on blog posts. I sit by like some dumb blindsided witness. I don’t write to my politicians and news agencies saying that I will not take it anymore; that we’ve gotten lost and we’re off the rails.

    Regardless of what land we live in, we are all on this boat together and we’re f*%king up it seems, badly. Innocent, guilty or not, he’s not alone and I agree with you: It makes me sick, too.

  9. Rob, thank you for your balanced approach to this tragic story. It’s too bad more journalists don’t cover stories in this way. I’m sorry to hear about the robbery and loss to your photographs from the past 3 years. That’s got to hurt.

  10. This needed to be said! Two sides to every story and all that, but I must say I was taken aback when one of Oscar’s ‘friends’ talked about him in a very unflattering light, with friends like that…

  11. You know, I’ve been waiting to hear the opinion of someone who knows the crime-rate in South Africa to write something like this. We may not know what goes on behind closed doors, be the whole world may not even know what’s happening in the neighborhoods in other countries either. Thanks for this post. As for the case, I hope everyone finds peace and justice. And also to realize that sometimes, hell, shit happens.

  12. I hadn’t heard the story and know little about life in South Africa, honestly. It’s still on my “bucket list.” I like the way you approached this article, and agree that something doesn’t feel right. Thank you for keying me into it. I’ll have to go find out more.

  13. Unfortunately, it seems that in today’s society, people just LOVE when they have the opportunity to demonize celebrities. All I can say is that I hope that the truth (whatever it is) comes to light and this man can get on with his life.

  14. Hi,
    I enjoyed reading your post. Media frenzies were felt all the way in NZ too … like you I do not know facts and thus by no means think myself called to pass an opinion. However, what I think was in play here and in so many cases, although not as tragic, of sporting heroes we turned into celebrities, is ridiculous amount of pressure society places on them … and then everyone is mortified by surprise when they snapped!

    Thank you,
    Daniela of the Lantern Post

  15. A documentary about the very issues you raise regarding safety would be a really interesting contribution to the TV schedules right now, and yet, Channel Nine Australia are instead about to broadcast a program tomorrow night (Sunday) entitled “Bladerunner: My Lover, My Killer” tasteful eh?, the guy is out on bail today, but whether he is judged guilty or innocent the media are already influencing public opinion with attention grabbing titles. The cynic in me wonders whether it’s an attempt to divert some attention from our own sporting hero down falls with the recent news that doping is rife across many sporting codes in Australia and that the Olympic swimming team have now been dragged into some murky waters. A thought provoking and timely post.

    http://channelnine.ninemsn.com.au/bladerunnermylovermykiller/

  16. I think it’s such a tragedy in so many ways, 1) the double amputee feeling vulnerable,2) the perceived violent in South Africa, 3) Someone gets shot behind a door while in the bathroom? OK, he may not have helped his cause by his statement and South Africa’s judicial system is riddled with corruption, but let’s hope he can get a fair trial and the truth comes out of what happened that night. Nice post and good writing. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks.

  17. It sucks not knowing the truth for sure, especially when the “truth” we’ll have to live with is a less than perfect legal system’s answer (I assume it’s less than perfect, Lord knows our American one is). OJ Simpson is innocent, right? I even wanted to give Lance Armstrong the benefit of the doubt up until somebody proved he was lying, even though we all knew he was.

    You’re right that no matter how asinine a story is, there are many true stories out there that are way more outlandish than what this guy is claiming. Hopefully, the truth comes out in the end.

  18. I don’t think it’s ever possible to know what really happened if you weren’t there. The closest we can come is through the evidence presented in a court of law, but even that is merely our best guess. We will never really know anymore than we will ever really know what happened to Nicole Brown Simpson.

    • I’ve been reading a lot about this story and too many things do not make sense to me. You might be interested in reading my post at ceejae-devine.com. It might not be possible to ever know everything, but I think recreating the scene would tell us a lot.

      • Hi there. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying I believe Oscar is innocent. I also don’t have an opinion on whether he is guilty… The reason I wrote this is because I see an unprecedented ‘trial by media’ and the public in this case – and that is what makes me sick. We still don’t have close to all the facts, I’m sure. I would imagine when it comes to trying to ascertain the facts that the defense and prosecution will try to recreate the scene… I also do pray that Reeva’s family is able to get closure and comfort in the truth as it emerges during the trial.

        • Thanks for the reply. I don’t think people should make comments or decisions when they aren’t reading enough to know what’s going on (which is what I believe you are referring to when you describe it as a witch hunt), so I have been following it and waited until I felt I had enough information to feel like I could make a decision. That’s why I directed you to my post, because for me, the locked bathroom door says all I need to know.

  19. This is a heart-breaking story, one life wonderful lost, another destroyed. Thanks for writing about Oscar Pistorius from your South African perspective.

    I do understand about the paranoia of having your broken into when there is a lot of violent crime. Houses in my neighborhood in the Kansas City area have been burglarized, sometimes the robber comes in when the people are there. One friend recently confronted the robber who broke into her house at 1 a.m. Fortunately, he left and since has been caught because he kept breaking into houses in the same area.

    Last week, another friend in the L.A. area had her house broken into while she and her family was home. It was an office with a separate entrance. Her husband’s computers and cameras were stolen.

    I was a little apprehensive to visit South Africa, which I did in early January, because of the crime rate., especially when you don’t know which areas are safer. On the plane to South Africa a young man from Jo-burg warned us where not to go and what not to do. He said that the homicide rate was very high, but that a lot of it was domestic violence. “In that case, you only have to worry about one person,” he said.

    Friends and I spent a week in January in a house we rented in Camps Bay. Every house in the neighborhood was surrounded by electric fence and gates and walls with security systems. Twice we accidentally set off the alarm, and an armed security guard showed up. Another time I backed into the electric fence on the deck and got quite a shock. We had a wonderful time, despite wondering whether we should be more vigilant when we traveled around. It’s a beautiful country with so much to see. The people were very friendly and helpful. (We also went to Jo-burg and the Kruger area).

  20. What’s sad is how much negative publicity and comments made on Pistorius and no attention on the many other cases of girl getting shot by gangster in slum, etc. We are so interested in pointing fingers at him because the higher up you are, the harder you fall. Kind of a self righteous society isn’t it.

    • True. We live in a very self righteous, self involved society… And it seems to me that it’s becoming more so… My mother was telling me the other day how her mother used to chastise her for gossiping about others but our social-media obsessed society is over-run with gossip and slander, with no thought of how it may impact on others’ lives…

  21. Sam here. What honestly kills me is how we judge, regardless. How we judged him before and at the Olympics and how we judge him now. And people thinking he’s innocent is just as much a judgment as people thinking he’s guilty. You know that, right? The media is so pervasive that we tend to forget that simple fact, but judging anyone is wrong.

    • Nowhere in my article did I say I think he is innocent, but I would like to believe he is. Because, unlike so many who believe the worst, in fact seek the worst, I want to believe in good first… We’re a very negative society. Somehow it makes people feel better about themselves if they can criticize and pull down others – especially the rich and famous. I really don’t understand it, personally.

      I truly do hope that justice is done so that all involved can find restoration and closure.

      • Oh, I know you never said it. I was talking more about culture as a whole, and the ability of the masses to pass judgment at the drop of a hat. I completely agree with what you said.

  22. I hope you’ll give Reeva some consideration as well. I don’t believe Pistorius and it’s based primarily on one statement he made. I hope you’ll check out my post at ceejae-devine.com.

  23. Thank you so much for such a well-written post. I know of crimes that have been reported widely in the Australian media that have led me to feel grave misgivings about how the investigations and then the trials were heading. Keep as strong as you sound after voicing such cogent views on an emotive topic.

  24. I guess OScar’s explanation does seem ludicrous. But South Africa as you point out is a scary country. I don’t see why we really need to focus on this crime or on any other, really. It may be interesting, as a dark soap opera, but it’s also prurient.

  25. Stories like this I immediately tune out (or try) once I hear them because I know the media will make a circus of it. Although I’m studiously ignoring it, I honestly am very sad for the family of that young woman, for his family, and for the athlete if he is telling the truth. I believe in innocent until proven guilty and just leave it at that. It seems like a waste of my time just thinking about it, to be honest.

    But what I really hate is the way (in the U.S. at least) the media keeps showing pictures of the woman. They do this because she is beautiful and they know it will keep people watching. It is so transparent the way they are taking advantage of the looks of a woman who has just been buried after dying in a horrific manner. They’re marketing the dead to sell stuff. You’re right, it’s sick. But I don’t really think people are sick for judging, that’s just a common human frailty.

    By the way I recently visited your country for the first time and only found Jo’burg and environs to have a somewhat unsafe feel (and it’s only certain neighborhoods). The rest of the country is just fine. I avoid crime-ridden places in the U.S. too, and would never heap disdain on the whole country because of it’s bad apples.

  26. Extremely well and sensitively written. I wholeheartedly agree. In this tragedy it has not been ‘innocent until proven guilty’ but the media have made it ‘guilty until proven innocent’.

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