And the Oscar goes to . . . court

South African society is in the grip of trial fever

Shot dead: Reeva Steenkamp. Photograph: Mike Holmes/Herald/Gallo/Getty

Shot dead: Reeva Steenkamp. Photograph: Mike Holmes/Herald/Gallo/Getty


“Look,” my taxi driver says as he negotiates the traffic in Cape Town. “This Oscar thing is a white problem. If he was black it would have never happened.” “How do you mean?” I ask, surprised. “See, you whites’ houses are too big. If he was black and had a government house, this ‘Then I was in the bedroom, then on the balcony, then I heard something in the bathroom’ would never have happened. With us blacks the houses are too small. When we shoot someone we know who we are shooting. So I feel sorry for the bloke.”

It has been 380 days since Oscar Pistorius, South Africa’s golden boy, admitted that he shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on St Valentine’s Day last year. South Africans can tell you where they were when they heard the news.

It is, of course, not the first time South Africans have had to deal with the fall of a sporting hero. In 2000 Hansie Cronje, the beloved national cricket captain, was accused of match-fixing by the Indian authorities. The country was in revolt. You could not go anywhere without being pulled into a discussion about his innocence. No one believed he could ever have done something like that, until he publicly admitted to what became the biggest scandal in cricket history. The nation was devastated.

Now a case involving another sporting hero has captivated the country and the world’s media even more fully. Every bit of accommodation in Pretoria was booked months ago by international and local media. In hotels, shops and township shebeens, people are talking about the case, and everyone is an expert. From the shanty towns to the affluent dinner tables of Sandton, people discuss the most intricate details of criminal law and share “confidential” information that, strangely, no one else knows.

“She had an affair,” a saleswoman says while I try on clothes. “I heard it from my cousin, who heard it from someone who knows someone close to the police.”

“She made a panicked phone call as he was shooting,” one of the stewards at a sports event whispers as he shows me to my seat.

As would be the case in Ireland, it wasn’t long before the jokes started to surface, and many comedians quickly got in on the act. They are not shying away from the racial comparisons. “The problem with Oscar is that he confessed too quickly,” jokes the comedian Loyiso Gola. “Us black okes, we know never to confess to anything, not even our names. If it was me, I would not even have given my name to the judge.”

Another well-known satirist had a whole show about Pistorius that had South Africans rolling in the aisles.
But there also seems to be a limit to how much people can stomach. This week the owners of Charly’s, a much-loved Cape Town bakery that makes, according to its logo, “Mucking afazing cakes”, baked a series of biscuits, with messages in icing: “And the Oscar goes to . . . jail”; “I am in the toilet, don’t shoot”; and, next to a Nike sign, “Just do it, he did it.”

When many people were offended, the bakery apologised and withdrew the biscuits.

Yet, between all of the debates and jokes, South Africans are painfully aware that the whole country is on trial. We fear what the next weeks will reveal of our society, particularly the terrible scourge of violence against women.

We dread the very real possibility that something tragic did not just go wrong that evening but that Steenkamp was another one of thousands of women who get abused, raped, maimed or killed every year because someone close to them lost their temper.

The next few weeks will expose our society’s shocking attitude to women, and the obsession of so many people with owning guns. The judiciary, legal system, competency of the police and the country’s commitment to justice will also be put under intense scrutiny by world media that seems keen to prove South Africa is a post-Mandela disaster. Melanie Verwoerd was South African ambassador to Ireland

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