Oscar Pistorius: Spare a thought for the families

2014-03-04 17:35

Those of us with no personal stake in the outcome of the Oscar Pistorius trial have the promise of good sport. We’ll be following the unfolding drama – for tens millions around the world shall – much as we do a football match.

Most will have taken sides already, so the ones who have made up their minds that Pistorius is guilty of murder will be celebrating each successful strike by the prosecution as if their team had scored a goal, while those who have made up their minds that he is innocent will go “Ouch!” – and vice versa when the defence team scores a hit.

In the middle, there will be a group of neutrals to savour the spectacle and who will shift positions along with the trial’s ebbs and flows.

This is not to criticise, for we are all guilty. Were this trial involving another world-famous person, and were Reeva Steenkamp still alive, we can be pretty sure that the two of them would be gossiping animatedly about it with their pals in Tashas with the same detached fascination as everybody else.

But there might be something to be said for sparing a thought every now and again both for the Steenkamp family and for Pistorius and his family as they prepare to face ordeals more harrowing than the most tribal football fanatic is able to imagine.

It would be good if we could take a little distance from the judgments we have made and remember that these are people enduring the cruelest of fates, and that if we are gripped by their predicaments it is in part because deep down we suspect that there, but for the grace of God, might go we.

It is less difficult to feel the Steenkamps’ pain. Save for a tiny lunatic sector so convinced of Pistorius’ unalloyed divinity – some don’t just say they believe Oscar, they say they believe in him – that they somehow think she had it coming to her, the majority of those rooting for him will surely have the compassion to spare some sympathy for the victims’ lot.

As for Pistorius, the shrill, off-with-his-head crowd might do well to recall that under South African law everyone is innocent until proven guilty. And if that tests the bounds of generosity, try bearing in mind that he desperately regrets what happened at his home on Valentine’s night last year and that, irrespective of the trial’s outcome, he is condemned to be haunted by the memory of what he did for the rest of his days.

A broader point then emerges as to how much pity and understanding we should show to people who have committed crimes. How disposed are we to allow for extenuating circumstances in the lives of people who have done terrible things? Not very, and if the evidence at the trial reveals that Pistorius knowingly killed Reeva Steenkamp, beyond reasonable doubt, even less.

But for now at least, and until the evidence is heard and the verdict is in, it might be as well to remember that prior to the shooting, Pistorius, whose life has been a battle against the hard circumstances of his birth, had built up a fair amount of credit on the ledger of virtue.

It is not much known but, beyond the charities he supported, many instances exist of kindness and decency on his part towards individuals to whom he owed nothing.

Better known is that his athletic triumphs ­­– the most remarkable achievements in the history of sport – inspired many of those millions around the world who will now be following the trial.

More than anyone else alive, he has changed perceptions of how disabled people are seen and how they see themselves, giving them new dignity and self-esteem.

As we follow the contest’s thrills and spills, let us keep that thought somewhere in the backs of our minds. And maybe too, however it all turns out, let us try not to forget it.

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