Nel’s dangerous behaviour

2014-04-16 00:00

EDUCATION does not happen only in the classroom. Adults teach and all of us learn in many different contexts, from churches to homes and, yes, in courtrooms. So what do we learn from the pedagogy of the courts or, more precisely, about the behaviour of lawyers such as Gerrie Nel in the courts?

Day after day, South Africans bear witness to one of the worst kinds of teaching on display by observing the prosecutor living up to his nicknames of “bulldog” and “pitbull”, conscious, no doubt, of the career opportunities by doing so in front of live cameras, and with international reporters writing with barely concealed admiration for his antics. Nel ready to “crucify” the witness, says one newspaper, while another announces that he “tears into Pistorius”, with a cartoonist drawing a picture alongside the story showing the prosecutor biting into what is left of the para-Olympian’s leg. This is the stuff of medieval barbarity.

Forget for a moment whether you think Oscar Pistorius is guilty or innocent. Lay aside also, for the moment, the theatrics we associate with courtroom lawyers from real celebrity cases, such as the trial of O.J. Simpson, and television series such as LA Law. I am no legal expert, but this much I know: the role of lawyers is to ask tough questions of the accused to find weaknesses, expose contradictions, even intimidate, and, in the process, get to the truth. But they ask questions, a crucial element of good teaching. What Nel does, however, is ask very few penetrating questions. He scolds, makes statements, screams, charges and insults. But he does not ask many insightful questions, waiting, rather, for Pistorius to respond to his outbursts: “Say yes, I killed Reeva Steenkamp!”. I can imagine that in several democracies the judge would intervene with these simple words: “What is your question, Mr Nel?” But Nel is not interrupted. What do we learn about the pedagogy of the courts?

We learn that in difficult situations it is acceptable to scream rather than inquire. We learn that being angry is more important than being curious. We learn that insulting is preferred to drawing out through good questions. We notice that cynical laughter and smirks by the prosecutor are not out of place in a murder trial. We learn that power over an accused has no limits, even to the extent of bullying and intimidating with hard-core photographs. We see, ironically so, given the death of a woman, men at play in that most vicious of South African habits: behaving aggressively in public spaces, except this time it is justified by the conventions of legal practice. I cannot think of a more dangerous pedagogy for a violent country than what Nel is acting out against another man, who is himself accused of a history of violent behaviour with guns that ended in the tragic death of his girlfriend.

This is a country where people have answers to everything, even things they do not understand, rather than questions. Long before the evidence is in, we make up our minds. And even when the evidence is available, our racial, class or religious preferences often override the truth. Teachers are notorious for handing down facts rather than drawing out pupils’ views through Socratic questioning. Even when teachers ask questions, they already have preferred answers, even when open-ended or alternative answers would be reasonable. It is always surprising to me how many 18-year-olds come into university having already figured out the world, from economics to history, education and politics. “Why come to university,” I often ask, “if you already have the answers?”

This is the problem with the courtroom drama in which Nel takes centre stage. He is simply an extension of the bad teaching in schools and society, unable or unwilling to practise his craft through the skill of asking good questions. He prefers a brawl between men, good old-fashioned South African testosterone style. I do not care whether this is how prosecutors behave. What I do care about is the simple fact that the lawyers in this widely publicised trial occupy a platform from which they are also teaching us about law, decency, rights and manhood. “Mr Pistorius, I’m not going away”, at the end of a dramatic day of testimony, sounds more like a threat from a mobster than the skilful questioning of a lawyer.

• Jonathan Jansen is the vice chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State.

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