Letter from South Africa: The Oscar Pistorius Case

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA — Oscar Pistorius, the famous South African disabled athlete and Paralympian known as the “Blade Runner,” was convicted on September 12, 2014 of the culpable homicide of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. The case, which has generated something of a global media frenzy, highlights not only personal tragedy but sheds light on the South African criminal justice system and the less than healthy side of post-apartheid society.

'Anomalies' of the Case

For North American readers the Pistorius case offers a number of "anomalies" that need explanation. First, under South African law there is no jury. The jury system was abolished in the 1940s. Criminal cases are tried by a judge, with up to two legal assessors (who may also be judges). This was introduced to officially make application of law more effective, to prevent legal grandstanding to sway juries. It also eliminated the possibility of intimidation of jury or letting prejudice (i.e. racism under apartheid, where white juries would face black accused) cloud decisions.

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Although “undemocratic” it may well have provided benefits in certain cases, e.g. the famous 1964 Rivonia trial, where it is highly likely that a (white) jury would have sentenced Nelson Mandela and his comrades to death for treason. This did not happen, and the rest was history, as one says.

Second, the Pistorius case was televised live. Though trials are reported in the press, this was a major departure from judicial form. Legal opinion is divided over whether this can lead to defense claims of a mistrial, a possibility as the almost inevitable appeal process will no doubt begin. 

Barry Roux, the defense counsel, has consistently indicated that it may have prejudiced the case: witnesses feeling unwilling to testify in front of millions, particularly for the defense in a context where any sympathy for Pistorius might be read as acquiescence to violence against women, endemic in South Africa. Further it could be argued that witnesses watching trial proceedings on television may have been unduly influenced in their testimony. Finally, the trial has generated so much publicity that it could be argued that it that the judge may have been influenced by the court of public opinion. 

The Judge's Options

Under South African law, Justice Thokozile Masipa was faced with a number of options in making her judgement, given that Pistorius never denied killing Reeva Steenkamp. 

First, she had to decide whether Pistorius actually believed there was an intruder in the house. If so, he would have been guilty of culpable homicide—with the possibility that his actions were reasonable and grounds for acquittal. Here the law hinges on the claim that a person had reasonable grounds to act against an identifiable and imminent threat against their life.

If judged not reasonable, he would have been convicted and sentenced for up to 15 years imprisonment, though a certain amount of judicial discretion is allowed. In effect she has decided in favor of culpable homicide; when she passes sentence in a few weeks we shall see the extent to which she considers Pistorius guilty.

If she had decided that he was lying, he would have been convicted of murder, with Masipa having to decide whether it was premeditated or not. If the former she would have had to sentence Pistorius to 25 years to life. (There is no death penalty in South Africa). If the latter, the minimum sentence is 15 years.  

The Wider Signficance

Pistorius’ conviction has surfaced many features of his personality as well as the society in which South Africans live. The hero has been revealed as an unstable person: gun-obsessed, deeply insecure, with a fear of being the victim of crime, he has been interpreted by some psychologists as having a personality prone to rage, as illustrated by his parallel conviction on a lesser charge: reckless and unlawful discharging of a firearm in a public place (a restaurant). Though he has beaten the murder rap, Pistorius has lost so much: his reputation.

A psychiatrist testified at the trial that, in her opinion, Pistorius suffered from General Affective Disorder (GAD), a condition marked by a sense of dread and restlessness, threat to personal safety, irritability and heightened paranoia that makes reasoned judgments difficult. Such persons, she added, should not own firearms. (It should be noted that gun-ownership is controversial and highly contested here, as in the United States).

Controversial as GAD may be (some feel it’s too general to be useful), it could easily be seen as a mirror of contemporary South Africa. South Africa is a violent society, where few people don’t know of someone who has been murdered (even though the actual murder rate has dropped significantly in the last twenty years). Socio-economic inequality has grown, with the (predominantly but not exclusively white) elites feeling deeply insecure, even besieged, by an anonymous mass of poor “barbarians at the gates.”

This is generally a myth—most violent crimes occur in poor, black townships. The wealthier you are, the more resources you have to protect yourself: gated communities (like the one Pistorius lived in), alarm systems and private security companies on 24-hour call. Despite this, it must be noted, not even the elite are immune.

Among whites like Pistorius there is a sense of powerlessness, of no longer being in control of their lives, or their identity, as well as residual racism in many cases that will take decades to work out of their psyche. For black South Africans there is frustration that freedom did not bring equality or the better life promised by political leaders. Beneath the surface of civility, there is deep anxiety, anger and aggression that bubbles over into mistrust, and sometimes symptoms such as road rage, reckless behavior, racist incidents, and violence.

Ultimately, the Pistorius case is a mirror of South African post-apartheid culture, a grim reminder that persons are products of environment and that political freedom is a necessary but by no means sufficient condition to reconciliation.  

Anthony Egan, S.J., is one of America's South Africa correspondents.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Michael Pravetz
3 years 11 months ago
Since the publication of the above letter, Mr Pistorius was sentenced to 3 years for culpable homicide, and given a suspended sentence for his other conviction. The media circus surrounding the sentencing phase was instructive of all those, both in South Africa and elsewhere of court proceedings. This was the first televised trial. Pistorius will be eligible for house arrest after serving 10 months of his custodial sentence, which pales when compared to sentencing in most American jurisdictions. Had the trial not involved the celebrity of Mr Pistorius, it would have certainly lasted but a few days. I have never heard of an "outpatient" psychiatric evaluation, nor the use a a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, to mitigate his actions. Every traffic stop, if pushed to the extreme, could consider one's anxious state in the future, since GAD has a very high prevalence in all societies. The question remains, was justice served? In not so original terms, "who am I to judge". Michael Pravetz, PhD, MD, LLB, Cape Town

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