Mind your language:the Pistorius trial

2009-05-12 00:00

AS the defence prepares to call on its witnesses in the Oscar Pistorius trial, one can’t help but reflect on the events as they unfolded from March 3.

Parallels have been drawn between this trial and O.J. Simpson’s in the United States, with the former being a first for South Africa in terms of exposing many of us to how the justice system works. With any luck, we’ll probably be able to decipher how much money talks when the judge deliberates over the state and defence’s cases.

And it’s been quite a soap opera-esque few weeks, the first of which saw the accused barely making it out of court in one piece as he was hounded by the media — steadfast as flies on a pile of poo.

Then there was the unforeseen harassment of witnesses, aided to a certain extent by defence advocate Barry Roux carelessly reading out one witness’s phone number to all and sundry.

Horror and intrigue have come out equally from inside the courtroom. One could literally find oneself on the edge of one’s seat on some days, as some of the testimony made for riveting viewing. Pistorius’s ex-girlfriend Samantha Taylor actually left advocate Gerrie Nel pink in the face at one point when he asked: “How many times have you heard the accused scream?”

Taylor: “A couple of times, my lady [slight giggle],” cough.

Nel: “Would you say he screams like a woman?”

Taylor: “No, my lady. He screams like a man.”

Maybe a little too much information there, lass!

Other days, particularly those on which expert witnesses gave testimony with cold, hard facts, were a little bit bland. Boredom seeping in, one was left with very little to do but start poking fun at Colonel Schoombie van Rensburg’s awful 3D lime and brown tie. Eish!

In an unprecedented move to ensure that the public bears witness to justice being served, the introduction of the media (and therefore the rest of us) into the fray — although measured and controlled — has taken something away from the seriousness of it all; the grim reality that one family has lost a loved one through a senseless crime. It seems that genuine empathy for the Steenkamp family is lacking and they’ve been shifted to the periphery as the spotlight shines on a fallen star.

Nevertheless, I’ve been fascinated by the drama in the interpretation department. I don’t remember when last our country was subjected to as many cringe-worthy moments as it has been during this trial. To say the translation process has been cumbersome would be a gross understatement. Stating things verbatim is clearly rocket science, and then some.

It’s been three weeks of apparently qualified interpreters getting cold feet (delaying court proceedings) and coughing attacks. We’ve witnessed a total lack of listening skills, witnesses being cut off, an overbearing voice, and what happened to personal space, people? Talk about egg on the Department of Justice’s face.

I admit to having initially bemoaned some of the state witnesses’ use of Afrikaans on the stand. The rationale was that it was “clear” they understood and could speak English. But, it is one thing to understand and be competent in a language, and another to be fluent. Hence freedom of speech in any of South Africa’s 11 official languages is enshrined in the Constitution. So many things can go wrong through misinterpretation. It soon became clear that most of the witnesses were forced to change to English out of sheer frustration with the dodgy interpreting. The interpretation fiasco and the bungling of the crime scene are only the tip of the iceberg. It should be a wake-up call for our criminal-justice system. But in true Advocate Roux style, what if I put it to you that once the cameras are eventually switched off, we’ll go back to living life in the mediocre lane?

— News24.

• Gomotsegang Motswatswe is a political scientist, freelance writer and blogger, with a passion for children’s rights, the arts and media.

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