Oscar’s teacher tells of last phone call

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Bill Schroder, former head teacher at Pretoria Boys High School. Picture: Damaris Helwig

London - Just three days before he was engulfed in the tragedy that left his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, dead and Blade Runner Oscar Pistorius charged with her murder, the Paralympic icon had spoken excitedly to his old head teacher about moving to a new home he had bought in Joburg.

Bill Schroder, former head teacher at Pretoria Boys High School, which Pistorius attended as a teenager, had a phone conversation with the 26-year-old on Monday afternoon, during which Pistorius revealed his plans to move out of his luxury Pretoria mansion in a gated community.

The move would have enabled Pistorius to pursue his celebrity lifestyle and the trappings that accompanied his life as one of South Africa’s sporting icons. But less than 72 hours after talking through his plans with his former teacher, Pistorius was charged with Steenkamp’s murder.

They had been going out for just three months before their relationship turned violent in the early hours of Valentine’s Day, when 29-year-old model Steenkamp, who had planned to launch a career as a lawyer, was found dead in his bathroom.

Steenkamp was shot four times by Pistorius in what initial reports suggested was an accident, but what prosecutors are calling premeditated murder. Pistorius, broke down in tears during his first court appearance in Pretoria on Friday. He is being held in a police cell before a bail hearing tomorrow.

Schroder said on Sunday that Pistorius, a Paralympics gold medallist in Athens, Beijing and London, had never spoken of his relationship with Steenkamp to him. “Oscar never mentioned Reeva to me. He never mentioned any girlfriends to me. I knew he was popular with the ladies because he was so charismatic and very good looking.

iol new spic Oscar in court 1

Oscar Pistorius, centre, is led from the Boschkop police station east of Pretoria, en route to court. Photo: AP

AP

“He had called me on Monday afternoon. I fundraise for the school and his year group had been particularly poor in putting their hands in their pockets. I told him, ‘You’ve got a few bob in the bank, you must be able to help’. He was typically and charmingly Oscar; he always called me ‘boss’ or ‘sir’. He said, I’m going to get on the phone to my friends right now. I’ve got half an hour to kick some serious butt.

“He said his donation would be relatively small right now because he had just bought a new house in Joburg. He was very excited about moving. His social life is there and a lot of the appearances he did, so it was just more convenient. He was thinking of having a flat in Pretoria Monday to Friday where he trains. He was working hard and looking forward to an event in Australia in a couple of weeks.”

Schroder, who taught at Pretoria High from 1990 to 2009, has maintained a friendship with his former pupil and it was with horror and a heavy heart that he woke on Thursday to reports that a woman had been shot dead at Pistorius’s home. Initial reports suggested the runner had mistaken her for an intruder but this was dismissed by police.

A 9mm pistol was recovered from the house and, according to reports, Steenkamp was shot in the head and hand through a bathroom door.

On Sunday, Pistorius’s uncle, Arnold Pistorius, released a statement on behalf of the family saying that his nephew was “numb with shock as well as grief”. He added that the family “strongly refute” the charge of premeditated murder.

Arnold Pistorius said his nephew and Steenkamp had become very close since they started dating in November. “They had plans together and Oscar was happier in his private life than he had been for a long time,” he said.

However this tragic story develops, the reputation of Pistorius - revered around the world for the way he transformed attitudes towards disability - is irreparably damaged.

Schroder is confronting the possibility that the spotlight, which first trained on Pistorius at school after he won 400m gold at the Athens Paralympics as a 17-year-old and grew even stronger when he became the first amputee runner to race in an Olympics this summer, may have been too bright for him.

“One wonders what part the incredible pressure Oscar is under all the time played,” said Schroder. “He has said to me on occasions that it would be so nice just to be ordinary. He has done so much for South Africa as an ambassador.

“I just hope there are mitigating factors. I hope it is an accident and not cold-blooded murder. But it’s never going to be the same again. The icon has fallen.”

Asked if he knew of Pistorius’s alleged fascination with guns, Schroder said: “I didn’t, but I spoke to one of his classmates yesterday and he was telling me that Oscar has always had this love of firearms and apparently he has always been a gun collector.”

Trauma had already struck for Pistorius as a 15-year-old when his mother died following complications after a hysterectomy. It was a pivotal episode in his childhood and one which Pistorius struggled to come to terms with.

“Oscar, his older brother, Carl, and younger sister, Aimee, were much closer to their mum than their dad,” said Schroder. “To lose her at such impressionable ages was a hell of a thing for them to cope with, particularly in a broken home.”

Dr Gerry Versveld, the surgeon who amputated Oscar’s legs – he was born with no fibula bones – when he was 18 months old and has since become a close family friend, remembers him as being “extraordinarily adaptable”.

Versveld said: “He was a very uncomplaining person. There were times when I told him ‘You need to cut down your activities’. He did everything that everyone else did.”

If Pistorius is found guilty, he could be incarcerated in one of South Africa’s notorious prisons, where cells are often shared by up to 20 prisoners. Life sentences in South Africa average 25 years.

“I blanch at the thought of how he would cope with his prosthetics in there,” said Versveld. “He would have specific requirements and I don’t know how they would deal with that.”

The surgeon credits Pistorius with altering perceptions towards the loss of limbs.

“Oscar changed the whole ball game,” said Versveld.

“In the last few years I’ve treated a couple of kids with similar problems and for them to make that decision to amputate is extremely emotional.

“I have often pointed to Oscar and they have seen how much success he has had.

He has changed the way that people think.”

While Steenkamp remains the true victim of the events of Thursday morning, the final toll of the tragedy is yet to be revealed.

Mail on Sunday


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