Mind Your Language: Looking back at the Oscar Pistorius Trial

2014-03-27 14:28

As the defence prepares to call on its witnesses in the Oscar Pistorius trial on Friday, one can’t help but reflect on the events as they unfolded from March 3rd. Parallels have been drawn between this trial and OJ Simpson’s; with the latter being a first for South Africa in exposing a lot of us to how the justice system works. With any luck we’ll be probably be able to decipher how much money talks when the judge deliberates over the stateand defence’s cases.

And it’s been quite a soap opera-‘esque’ couple of weeks, hasn’t it? The first of which saw the accused barely making it out of court in one piece from being hounded by the media: ‘Steadfast as flies on a pile of poo. Then there was the otherwise unforeseen harassment of witnesses, aided to a certain point by defence advocate Roux carelessly reading out one witness’s phone number to all and sundry.

Horror and intrigue have equally come out from inside the courtroom. You could literally find yourself on the edge of your seat on some days as some of the testimony made for ‘riveting’ viewing. Pistorius’ ex-girlfriend, Samantha Taylor, actually left advocate Gerrie Nel pink in the face at one point when he asked:

GN: “How many times have you heard the accused scream?”

ST: “A couple of times, my lady (slight giggle)” *cough*

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

ST: “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 in cold, hard facts were a little bit…bland. Boredom seemingly seeping in, one was left with very little to do but to start poking fun at Col. Van Rensburg’s awful 3D lime and brown tie. Eish!

In an unprecedented move to ensure that the public at large bears witness to justice being served, the introduction of the media (and the rest of us by default) into the fray –although measured and controlled- has somewhat 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 personally fascinated by the drama in the “interpretation” department. I don’t remember when last our country was subjected to as many cringe-worthy, blonde moments as it has 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 cough attacks. We’ve witnessed a total lack of listening skills, witnesses being cut off; one over-bearing 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. See, it is one thing to understand and be competent in a specific language but it’s another to be fluent. Hence freedom of speech in any of South Africa’s eleven 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 the Queen’s language out of sheer frustration from dodgy interpreting.

The interpretation fiasco and the bungling of the crime scene are only the tip of the iceberg. It should certainly be a wake-up call for our criminal justice system, being caught with their pants down like that. But in true advocate Barry Roux style, what if I put it to you that once the cameras are eventually switched off; we’ll just go back to living life in the mediocre lane?

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