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Lukhona Mnguni
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If Oscar was a black man

26 February 2013, 18:22

The media often never misses an opportunity to conduct a court of public opinion when a criminal incident involving high profile persons is being heard in the real courts. This is partly due to the commercialisation of our society; it is all about news that sells. A shock and disbelief that a darling of the nation and global community could be guilty of having shot his beautiful model girlfriend in cold blood has caused a global media frenzy.

What is at stake here is Oscar Pistorius’s reputation, safe to say many feel that Reeva Steenkamp’s no longer matters following her death. Oscar’s reputation is being protected so much that a dedicated public relations’ consulting company, including British spindoctor Stuart “celebrity PR veteran” Higgins, was hired by the family. This is to ensure that the PR team conducts a swift medial trial.

The problem with the court of public opinion is that it has no controls to dispense fair justice and usually concludes on one’s guilt or innocence way before a court trial concludes on the verdict and this can put the judiciary in a compromising position with the public. That is if the court trial’s outcome is contrary to that of the trial done by the media.

Mail&Guardian journalist, Nickolaus Bauer, wrote that “The story of a beautiful blonde allegedly murdered by a disabled national icon will certainly sell more newspapers and magazines than covering another corruption scandal, another sexual assault or another murder in South Africa.”

Some media still maintains that there is an allegation that Oscar shot Reeva. This is no longer an allegation, it is established fact; the argument is now left to consider the reasons behind the shooting, whether it was deliberate or accidental. With hindsight, one can emphatically say the media played a role to protect Pistorius’s image at all costs during the bail application hearings, to retain his right to be deemed “innocent until proven guilty” at all costs.

Here the media barely cared about being sympathetic towards the family that lost a daughter from this alleged criminal act. Whenever the prosecution’s bail application arguments seemed to be weakening, thanks to the flounder Investigating Officer Botha, the media pronounced those weaknesses as though it was already a trial and the weaknesses proved Oscar’s innocence. That is why the Chief Magistrate Nair, when granting bail to Oscar, repeatedly emphasised that “Just because Botha was weak, it does not mean the state’s case is weak”.

When Anene Booysen’s brutal rape happened in Bredasdorp, the media assumed an activist role to highlight the scourge of gender-based violence directed to women. On the Pistorius matter, even though logic gives a fair possibility that Reeva Steenkamp was a victim of gender-based violence, the media has failed to let this story carry the baton from the story of Anene Booysen to further highlight that gender-based violence knows no race, class or prestige.

One would say, “but Pistorius has not been found guilty of intentionally killing Reeva”; however, equally the Anene Booysen’s accused rapists and killers have also not been found guilty, yet the media already portrays them as guilty – simply because they are black and poor, which increases their probability of guilt, whilst Oscar’s race and riches decrease his probability of guilt for such heinous acts.

Black incidents are treated as just another addition to the horrible national statistics of violence and brutality; meanwhile white incidents are treated as events worth bringing the nation to a halt until they are resolved as soon as possible. Examples of those cases are those involving Bees Roux, Eugene Terreblanche’s killing, the Modimolle Monster and now Oscar Pistorius. Famous court cases featuring black people are usually mainly those involving corruption, to show how badly prepared to govern, black people are; whilst corruption cases involving white people as wrongdoers are under reported.

Let us observe the different media narratives in the court of public opinion. Jacob Zuma had to explain himself in the rape saga, he had never been found guilty of any crime before; people simply did not like him because there were other allegations, such as corruption, to his name. Yet, in the court of public opinion, there was a thread of argument that was already pronouncing on his guilt.

Pistorius has also never been convicted of any crime before, but equally there are serious allegations of a short temper, violent and aggressive behaviour, yet the media treats him as a victim of circumstances (a consideration that was flatly dismissed on reports regarding Zuma during the rape trial), incapable of having been angered by Reeva to a point that he could have killed her. Anger, violence and crime have a black face and a male gender in this country.

That is why people (both black and white) start protecting their bags at the sight of “dodgy looking” black men on the streets, but if the “dodgy looking” person is white, they tend to feel some pity for them and even seek to enquire what is wrong with him.

In the Eugene Terreblance case, perpetrators were black. The media wanted them to be found guilty for such an inhumane act of bludgeoning Eugene. The media felt that no matter how aggrieved by Terreblanche the employees might have been, they had no right to kill him that way. In the Bees Roux (the Blue Bulls rugby player) matter, the media placed great focus on what was the conduct of the traffic officer.

Was it a corrupt “dodgy” cop or not, who wanted to rob Bees of his riches? Eventually, Bees Roux’s riches got him off the hook of justice by offering R750 000 to the black and poor family that had just lost a breadwinner to a senseless crime. Here the tables had turned swiftly because the perpetrator was suddenly a white man. It is some cultural shock for the media when a white person commits a crime, so much that the media’s own prejudices begin to show up glaringly.

Black perpetrators are turned into villains and white perpetrators are turned into victims, almost in all incidents. When a black, powerful, well-known person is involved in a criminal incident such as Oscar’s, the media is quick to take the position of “he must face the music as quickly as possible”, with the intention of teaching society a lesson.  The lesson is branded as “no one is above the law” even the powerful and rich get to be punished.

The media then behaves like a syndicate that is acting in the public’s interests and that of justice by almost being on the prosecution’s side with the intention to “bring down” this black powerful man. In this instance, we are made to believe that the media stands for justice with a bias towards those who are victims of the alleged crime. Then you get an Oscar Pistorius real life saga and the tables turn so quickly you hardly realise what is going on.

The media finds nothing odd with bringing down a black man, yet it allows white criminals to go unscathed. In the Jackie Selebi trial, the media found nothing worth questioning about our criminal justice system’s ability to give a white criminal (druglord) amnesty. Glen Aggliotti was given amnesty for serious crimes that affect communities that are gripped by a drugs’ problem, which contributes significantly to the spread of violence, murders and other criminal acts. Aggliotti was set free in exchange for information that would bring down this black and powerful man for having received bribes to the tune of about R165 000.

As I have argued, black incidents are a mere addition to the already horrific statistics. In April 2012, one of the most bizarre and outrageous incidents of rape occurred and the media barely covered it; its media life was very short lived.

A schoolboy of 15 years, raped and gouged out an eye of an eight year old fellow schoolgirl in sugarcane fields on their way back from school to their village, around the Gingindlovu area of KwaZulu-Natal. There was never a follow-up as to how the boy is being dealt with by the criminal justice system and whether or not rehabilitation will be a consideration for the boy.

During the Oscar Pistorius week of hysteria, in Durban, a man who was cheating on his wife is said to have fetched the side-girlfriend he was cheating with and brought her to his house and he shot her, then the wife and finally he shot himself. That story of course did not make much of news and I bet my life it would not have made much news anyways, even if the Oscar media madness were not there.

The incidents of such horror involving black lives are hardly noticed, part of the reason why Anene Booysen’s rape story made the news locally and abroad, save for its brutality (women have had their genitals mutilated across the country in many places), was because it happened at the backdrop of India’s worldwide reported gang rape.

Anene’s incident simply happened at a time whereby the global spotlight was on South Africa’s unbelievable statistics on rape and gender-based violence – it is amazing how when suddenly the perpetrator is white, rich and prominent, the spotlight has shifted and no longer highlights gender-based violence but worries about Oscar assuming status of “a fallen hero”.

If you are reading this piece from a media site, I commend the publishers for not censoring it. As a parting shot, just imagine in your head how the media would be reporting this Pistorius story if the person who shot Reeva was not Oscar but a rich or prominent black man. What if Kenny “Mr Sushi” Kunene was the male involved in this saga? Would the story be told in the same manner? Keep wondering….

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