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The Oscar Case: Challenging South Africa’s Ever Changing Narrative

11 March 2014, 11:18

“Was it a mockery?” This was the response from the prosecution’s star witness, Dr Michelle Burger, to badgering from defense attorney Barry Roux.  Roux was attempting, not for the first time, to get Burger to concede that there was an inconsistency in the idea of a man wanting to kill his girlfriend, but shouting for help at the same time.  Her response that this may have been a ploy by Pistorius to cover his tracks prompted an emotional response from Roux. In fact his response to this was his most impassioned rejoinder thus far in the trial.  But the judge agreed that the defense lawyer had overstepped the mark, and was indeed badgering Burger, telling him, "I really think you have exhausted this.”

Burger, who is Afrikaans, may not have meant “mockery” in the conventional way that it is understood, which is ‘to ridicule’ or ‘show contempt’.  The lecturer at the Department of Construction Economics at Pretoria University, in the nation’s capital, was alluding instead to the possibility of a charade, though other words also come to mind such as ‘pretense’, ‘sham’, ‘farce’ and ‘travesty’, as in ‘a travesty of justice’.  Is that what the world is witnessing in this South African court?  If justice must be done, by all accounts, the trial so far is living up to expectations that justice is also being seen to be done. Is that sufficient?

Voyeurism and Charades

Because this voyeurism isn’t without irony (another word, incidentally that can be associated with ‘mockery’).  In Nel and Roux, two of South Africa’s best legal brains, we also have two Afrikaans white men, pleading their case before a black judge who happens to be a woman.  There have been interpreters on hand, also black, who were not always able to make sense of what witnesses (again white, again Afrikaans), are saying, so much so that witnesses have decided instead to give their testimonies in English (their second language). On DSTV, a pay-television channel dedicated to 24/7 coverage of the trial, many of the experts analysing this case are black editors and journalists, and black legal professionals.  It is unusual but perhaps necessary, this reversal, a crime committed by a white celebrity in a wealthy enclave of Afrikaners, analysed by so many black experts, journalists and commentators. This is a situation where a violent, and some would say heinous crime, has taken place in one of South Africa’s wealthiest neighbourhoods.  In fact, crime statistics from Boschkop Police station in the Pretoria suburb of Lynwood Ridge (which handled the arrest of Oscar Pistorius) show for a fact that the estates under scrutiny are amongst the safest in South Africa.

But Pistorius’ defense insists that he is innocent, and further, that his mistake is innocent.  Specifically his case aims to show a white man killing a white woman was brought about by the imagined threat of a black stranger, as Margie Orford of South Africa’s Daily Maverick online has speculated. Sipho Hlongwane, a South African columnist with Business Day highlighted comments made by Alan Dershowitz, the American criminal lawyer, who told Piers Morgan on CNN recently that the trial was ‘racist’ and the country a ‘failed’ state.  These comments caused an uproar, perhaps rightly so.  But there can be no doubt that South Africa is failing in many critical areas.  There are hints and signs of this, of course.  Some of these hints are glaring, such as the unqualified, bogus interpreter flanking both the American and South African presidents at Mandela’s memorial service just a few months ago.  If that was not a case of the most brazen, fraudulent pretence the world has ever seen, it is difficult to think of one that could top it. Another is the South African presidents sprawling $20 million mansion, paid for by taxpayers under the pretence (that word again) of ‘security upgrades’. South Africa has seen its last two police commissioners fired, and McBride, an ex-criminal and terrorist, (also a police chief and also fired) recently appointed to the role of chief of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID). So is this trial, even if it is showing justice to be done, not also a pretense for the state trying to show that justice is being done, when in the background, in the corridors and trenches, it obviously is not?  At the same time the Oscar trial is underway, there has been a case televised of massive police brutality coming from Cape Town.  Where is justice if it is not in the courts, not in police stations, not in cities or the suburbs? Even in the context of this trial, the interpreters have either failed to turn up, or shown themselves to be clumsily unreliable.  While there are a number of issues one could add where South Africa is failing its citizens: crime, poor policing, poor service delivery, roads, transport, water, national electricity, corruption at the highest levels, racism at the lowest, interpretation may be a key area where it is not only South Africa that is failing, but many other civilised countries.

Interpretation is another way of saying, distorting, or explaining one’s version of something. At the end of February South Africa’s president addressed the nation, and called his achievements “a good story”.  Is that his interpretation? Often, we know, our own political leaders play word games with us.  They famously make promises in general terms, using conventional terms that cannot be held against them in a legal setting. But it’s not just politicians who excel at stretching the truth.  Or lawyers, who are famous at bending versions of reality until they resemble outright lies. What about us?  How do the media, big business and the public, for example, participate in the cult of celebrity?  And are we not all culpable to some extent in a collective greed for followers, friends, fortune or renown? 

The Media Monster

When this trial opened, the world watched and was immediately alerted to the dreadful scrutiny of the media and the unwillingness from key witnesses to be subjected to it.  That is what the media can be. It can be monstrous, and terrifying in itself.  In its sheer greed, and reach. The first witnesses have communicated a desire for privacy that questions the appropriateness and sensitivity (and even the lawfulness) of that blinding glare.  Whether performing as a finely-tuned microscope or as a firestorm, the cult (a word which could be expanded to ‘culture’) of the celebrity, should perhaps be revisited.  The one question that appears to be avoided in the pursuit of fame and celebrity is just this: is it authentic?  Is it real?  Surely it is in the media’s ambit to answer, rather than collude, in the answering of this question.

This of course raises another irony. "I listened to a woman die,” Dr Burger testified on the first day of the trial. “I listened to her petrified screams for help, life-threatening, petrifying... Because of the climax of her shouts, I knew something terrible was happening.” Burger, a Real Estate specialist (and only the 4th person in South Africa to be awarded a PhD in this study field) went on to say (through tears) she had suffered mild post traumatic disorder from those screams.  "Every day,” she said, “it comes back to me. Those terrifying calls for help. Those screams, those terrible, terrible screams."

Deconstructing the Masculine Brand

But Pistorius’s defense lawyer dismissed those screams as those of his own client calling for help. “The accused screams like a woman when he is anxious,” Roux insisted. “I put to you that it does. Decibel tests were done.” Of course this was the headline chosen by national newspapers the next day: “Oscar screams like a woman.” The public found this ridiculous, if not downright farcical.  Before the end of the week, the state’s advocate asked an ex-girlfriend of Pistorius, Samantha Taylor if she had heard him shouting. She testified that she had.  “Does he sound like a woman?” Nel asked her at the time. Miss Taylor smiled slightly and replied simply: “That is not true – he sounds like a man.”

The real reason for that slight smile, of course, is that Pistorius’ brand has been built around his masculine good looks, his athleticism, his courage and his determination.  People around the world have been inspired by his fighting spirit, his will to win, his ability to rise above the difficult circumstances surrounding his disability, and the inspiration implicit in turning a negative into a positive.  His brand is the brand of a hero.  Not just a man, but a ‘bladerunner’.  Not just a man but ‘the fastest man with no legs’.  To hear that one’s hero screams like a woman when anxious is contrary to Oscar Pistorius’ brand message.  Just after the death of South Africa’s greatest hero, Mandela, another great hero, loved by the world beyond South Africa’s shores, has fallen.  The nation is mourning, or starting to acknowledge the possibility that South Africa’s second greatest son isn’t who they thought he was.  And his case, it sometimes seems, doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

Pack Mentality of the Media

 A cursory remark by Charl Johnson, the state’s third witness, and Burger’s husband, was that after the Valentine’s Day killing, the couple often associated the cries of wild jackals drifting into earshot with those of Reeva Steenkamp. What floats inexorably to the surface of the psyche is a morsel of dialogue from the film, The Silence of the Lambs. Dr.Lecter, a highly educated, vicious psychopathic criminal asks Dr. Starling: You still wake up sometimes, don't you? You wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the lambs.

Clarice Starling: Yes.

Hannibal Lecter: And you think if you save poor Catherine, you could make them stop, don't you? You think if Catherine lives, you won't wake up in the dark ever again to that awful screaming of the lambs.

Clarice Starling: I don't know.

Of course, while the trial has been celebrated as an opportunity for South Africans to examine (possibly to fix, possibly to assess, possibly to praise) our justice system, no one really knows what good will come out this trial, particularly the media’s hungry participation in it.  Wits University’s Professor Anton Harber, director of Journalism and Media Studies, has astutely observed, “When we [the media] are at our worst is when we operate as a pack.” And the Oscar Pistorius trial has brought out this pack mentality, of editors and journalists trying to outscoop each other.  To what end?  Margie Orford’s allusion to the “paranoid imagining of suburban South Africa...[lurking] like a bogeyman...threatening, nameless and faceless...[the] dangerous black intruder” may have some foundation in reality.  But the media have a real role to play in shining a light that can dissipate the ghosts haunting our neighbourhoods.  Beyond selling stories, beyond that almost political cliché of telling a public what they want to hear, the media can do what they once did.  Instead of a preoccupation with profit, the South African media has an opportunity in this instance to perform a valuable public service.  There is always the opportunity for the media to shape culture, and create a new narrative.  South Africa’s media and advertising industry have succeeded to some extent in building an image of a ‘rainbow nation’, of a diverse crowd of ethnicities drinking beer together whilst watching rugby.  While the Oscar Trial unfolds, it is the responsibility of the media to deal with those ‘awful screams’ of the jackals.  But can they?  And if so, how?  What narrative is it that South Africans need to hear right now?

First of all, we have to learn discernment.  To separate fiction from reality, race issues from class issues and celebrity from heroism.  June Steenkamp, Reeva’s mother, had a simple message to the media.  She had come to the trial she said, because “I want to look into Oscar’s eyes.”  This is something we all need to do.  We have seen the common man become a Mandela, and we have seen the common man idolise him. We have seen a lot of counterfeiting of our heroes lately, haven’t we: Armstrong, Tiger Woods, presidents the world over, the pope, and now this.  Can we still recognise heroes when we see them?  Or are we complicit – the media and us – in building them up, making them into brands but based on little more than flash and the fickle fiat currency that is popularity. Should Pistorius ever have been allowed to compete as an equal, with able bodied athletes at the level of the Olympics?  Are our standards in terms of doping in professional cycling not equally applicable here?

The precursor to Pistorius shooting his girlfriend in 2013 were the Oscars, the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood.  Pistorius, ironically (again) was to be the face of that campaign in South Africa (ironically organised by the same channel that has devoted around-the-clock coverage of the trial). A year later, the Oscar’s were once again a precursor to the trial.  The Oscar for best actor went to Matthew McConaughey this year, for his role in theDallas Buyers Club. McConaughey gave an eclectic speech, the longest and some would say best of the evening.  He finished saying, “[My] hero. That's who I chase. ...when I was 15 years old, I had a very important person in my life come to me and say 'who's your hero?' And I said, 'I don't know, I gotta think about that. Give me a couple of weeks.' I come back two weeks later, this person comes up and says 'who's your hero?' I said, 'I thought about it. You know who it is? It's me in 10 years.'

That is the narrative South Africans, and everyone else following the cult of celebrity, need to learn. By being our own heroes we can’t participate in the cult of the celebrity.  By being our own heroes we can’t be our own worst enemies.  In this case, there was no intruder. The enemy lived in that house. The enemy was us. This was the last thought that occurred to all who heard those terrible screams. Facebook and twitter may enable these cults, but they also enable ordinary individuals to establish their own identities publicly.  The question is, are they real?  Is who we portray ourselves, authentic? Do we cry wolf behind our social media masks? Are we credible people, can we believe our neighbours and our countrymen and can they believe us?

For that to happen, more than being our own heroes, we have to be our own saviours.  To stop listening to the screams of the jackals in the dark, we have to turn instead towards each other.  For the light of our hearts is what illuminates the road to greatness, and this applies equally to people as it does to nations. But greatness only really happens if our dreams are not only dreams for ourselves, but dreams that includes our fellow man. Only you and I can walk it, but it is how we walk it together that makes all the difference, and decides that fateful question: where will this road take us to in the end?  The narrative that needs to emerge out of this trial is really Reeva Steenkamp’s narrative. A law graduate, a paralegal, Steenkamp was acutely aware of violence against women.  This is a moment for South Africans and the world to see how the law works. To learn the law, to live lawfully even when no one is watching, and to walk the road with class and with integrity. That’s the real lesson, and one Miss Steenkamp would have liked.

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