In the midst of gloom, witnesses display a bravery to be esteemed

2014-03-11 12:30

You are confined within this unglamorous court room partitioned by lifeless wooden walls and decks. In front of you is a small microphone and there are a bunch of serious-looking professionals in their ghostly black and white cloaks, each of them, awaiting to inspect each and every word emitted from your mouth. Not far from where you sit is this once glorified and once larger-than-life persona who once upon a year or two ago was celebrated all over the world for his athleticism and courage. Today he sits as a man downcast; his eyes have lost their light of confidence and his presence no longer reflects heroism and victory.

Judge's Seat (Source: Wikipedia)

You take that witness stand and everything you say may implicate this very man of a crime that he claims was by error and misjudgement. You are not only in the presence of the family members who have been affected by the shooting of a young model, Reeva Steenkamp, by this infamous athelete, Oscar Pistorious, but you are also under the scrutiny of a ruthless media. So much pressure! Let’s not forget that the rest of the world also joins in as it gazes at this O.J Simpson lookalike scene. It must be daunting!

This case reveals to those of us who have never walked in a court room or aren’t fans of Law And Order the responsibility a witness has during a court case. Many have already tweeted, commented and called in the talk radio stations to express how after watching and listening to the happenings in the trial they will never ever testify in court. This especially after witnessing the grilling cross-examination of defence lawyer Barry Roux, who I have found very intimidating and even confusing in the way that he does his job.

View Towards High Court From The Palace Of Justice (Picture taken from Wikipedia)

With all elements of the Oscar trial (the tweeting, the 24 hour channel, the blogs, the constant media updates, the ‘experts’ commenting on the sidelines and the public debate) I have to say that I have found myself admiring the witnesses. Let me be clear, I am no expert of knowing how to judge the factuality, intention or the integrity of a witness but I have to admit during my following of the trial I have respected the manner in which the men and women have handled themselves in the witness stand.

Someone who has impressed me the most has been the neighbour Charl Johnson, who on the second day of the trial told the Pretoria High Court that he “felt morally obliged to come forward” after initially not wanting to be involved. Johnson and his wife Michelle Burger decided to testify when they heard Oscar Pistorious' bail application on radio and realised it contradicted their experience of the morning of 14 February 2013. Immediately, after hearing Johnson explaining his reasoning behind testifying, I asked myself a personal question: Would I be able to do the same? Or would I be one of those of those people who wouldn't want to get involved in 'other people's business' because I have problems of my own? For many of us, it's so easy not to get involved, it's so easy to comment and make judgements from afar. For some of us we would prefer to let bygones be bygones. However, here in South Africa, the same land of sad statistics and news of corruption and social unrest, we have the likes of Johnson and Burger. They stand up and they do something. We have citizens such as these. How about that epic moment when Roux apologised to Johnson for reading his cellphone numbers out in court leading to the State Witness receiving death threats? Johnson replied by accepting the apology with an emphasized “Thank You”. I doubt many of us would have taken that route. For some it may have been too easy to accept. To others too 'religious'. Another would claim “why not sue?”

Let's not forget the third witness, Johan Stipp, who braved also the gloomy court room. Stipp described being awakened by the “gunshots and hearing the screams of a woman and then calling security. Now, let's take time to pause here. If I was someone's neighbour I would want a neighbour like Stipp. He doesn’t seem like one of those immobile, me-myself-and-I types. The guy thought seemed concerned about what was happening outside of himself. If Stipp's testimony is fact, what great citizenship and neighbourliness is this! Would you engage in such a scene? Would you confront the type of danger of hearing gunshots and screams?

Clearly Stipp did, because even after struggling to reach the security guards, he drove to the security to ask if it was safe to go to the house where the gunshots came from. Then Stipp says he drove to Pistorious' house and did not only stop there, but as a doctor even tried to help restore the lifeless body of Reeva Steenkamp. If this is a factual recount, then Stipp is the kind of neighbourliness we all want to have; one that is self-less, serving of others and let's be honest his recount is one that shows an act which appears sacrificial.

Recessed Windows in a Neoclassical Building Style (Pretoria High Court). Picture taken from Wikipedia.

Watching this trial I am more convinced that this trial is not a piece of “drama” where we watch with our popcorn as we lounge in TV room couches. It affects real people. Not only those who were involved (meaning Steenkamp and Pistorious, their friends and family) but it seems to have also affected even those who were witness to it.

I salute those, such as those who are participating in trials, who stand up and participate in the justice process. It surely isn't easy. To stand up in front of the world and allow your experience to be heard, questioned, scrutinised and at times denounced is no simple feat. I salute this type of citizenry. This type of participation and involvement is essential for a healthy justice process. Even though it's not easy, we need people to stand up and say:“I was there, I heard and this is what I saw.”

We might be the country which huddles together at bad news avenues, speaking of the sad blues of our country made up of statistics of gloom, cronies within our government halls and of protest marches. However, this is not all we have. We also have some decent people in this country. I salute those who have braved this trial and, many others trials that may have not been on our tellies. We salute the woman who recently took a cellphone video of policemen assaulting Nigerian national Clement Emekensha in Cape Town. She may not be named…but she reminds us as a country that although we may have troubles and downcast moments but there is a hope…

We have witnesses. We have citizenry. Ordinary people like you and I still do remarkable things.

(Ps. Follow and let me know your thoughts on my twitter @jazz2ben

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