The Pistorius Effect

Oscar Pistorius has put South Africa in the US media spotlight to a degree not seen since 2010. The coverage has been less flattering. The killing of Reeva Steenkamp is cast as a symptom of a nation in crisis.

Charlayne Hunter Gault occupies a special place in American journalism. In 1961, she became one of the first two African American students to attend the hitherto segregated University of Georgia.  For many years she was a correspondent and anchor on what was then the country’s most respected news show, the MacNeil/Lehrer Report.

Today she contributes regularly from South Africa to the New Yorker magazine,  whose website published her take on the shooting the weekend after it happened.  She saw it in the context of Anene Booysen’s rape and evisceration and of SA’s having, according to the World Health Organisation, the highest reported rate of domestic violence against woman and children in the world.

She  told her readers that while President Jacob Zuma had expressed horror at the savagery of Booysen’s butchers,  “he himself was once charged with rape and testified that it was his duty as a Zulu man to satisfy the woman who accused him.”

Radio 702’s Eusebius McKaiser is a regular on the New York Times oped page.  In an article on Wednesday headlined “Cry, the Misogynistic Country”,  he  seconded Hunter Gault on the violence against women theme and said “our society is drenched in blood”.

McKaiser  also saw the shooting  as a Rorschach test exposing seething racial resentments. Extrapolating from “comments from some whites on news websites”, the commentator discerned “widespread acceptance” among whites of Pistorius’ defence and of “the implication…(that) but for black leaders’ incompetence in assuring public safety, Ms. Steenkamp might still be alive.”

“The home in South Africa…is a nervous space,” wrote cultural anthropologist Matthew Durington in Friday’s Baltimore Sun, “and the mindset within these spaces becomes imbued with the sentiment that becoming a victim is inevitable.”  Durrington ”has conducted ethnographic research on gated communities in South Africa”, according to the Sun. His article was titled “Pistorius and South Africa’s Culture of Fear.”

The online magazine Slate, inspired by detective Hilton Botha’s performance on the stand and the revelation that he is facing seven murder charges of his own,  examined the state of policing in SA in a piece headlined “South Africa’s cops are really, really, unbelievably corrupt. Wow, they’re corrupt.” Pictured below the headline was a  Marikana Support Campaign protester with a placard reading: “Don’t let the police get away with murder”.

Writer Justin Peters found plenty of material in the Jackie Selebi case and in Andrew Faull’s 2011 study for the Institute for Security Studies, “Corruption in the in South African Police Service”, including this quote from a Durban resident:  “I cannot trust a policeman  who, when I go to report that I was abused by my boyfriend, sees that as an opportunity to ask me out and starts touching me.”

Time magazine’s Alex Perry  penned a “big picture” essay headlined “How the Fall of Oscar Pistorius is a Tragic Opportunity for South African Unity” into the midst of which, without warning or explanation, he  inserted this:

“Any day now Nigeria will announce it has overtaken South Africa as Africa’s largest economy. That will help cement opinion that South Africa, previously Africa’s economic powerhouse, is now a drag on the booming continent. Among black South Africans in particular, it will also harden disappointment with Mandela’s successors in the ANC , many of whom were also once heroes but are now rotten with corruption and violent, criminal factionalism.”

Relief came in the form a post, Saturday afternoon, on the New York Times’ The Lede  blog by one of the truly great journalists of his generation, John Burns.

Thirty five years ago, Burns covered another proceeding before a magistrate in Pretoria, the inquest into the death of Steve Biko, with which he now compared the Pistorius bail hearing, reminding readers how far South Africa had come and from what horror.

The magistrate then, Marthinus Prins, creature of a state rotten to the core, coldly accepted the lies of the security policemen who beat Biko into a coma and said they thought he was shamming even when they found him dead.  Desmond Nair, by contrast, “did South Africa proud”, Burns wrote.

“People will disagree whether Mr. Pistorius deserved the break he got in walking free from that courtroom, but nobody could reasonably contest that what we saw in his case was the working of a legal system that strives for justice, and not to rubber-stamp the imperatives of the state.”

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