ZELDA VENTER, OMPHITLHETSE MOOKI and SHAIN GERMANER
Pretoria - “There hasn’t been a moment since this tragedy happened that I haven’t thought about her family,” said a red-faced Oscar Pistorius.
Choking back tears, Pistorius on Monday wanted the world to know how sorry he was for the immense sadness he’s caused the family of his slain girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
“(Every day) they’re the first people I pray for,” he told the High Court in Pretoria, after asking Judge Thokozile Masipa for permission to address Steenkamp’s family sitting in the court gallery.
“I can promise that, when she went to bed that night, she felt loved,” he said, his voice quivering.
But June Steenkamp didn’t move an inch.
Pistorius’s apology for shooting and killing the model was the most dramatic part of the court day, with the defence using the rest of the day to build up his character – before the inevitable gruelling cross-examination by prosecutor Gerrie Nel.
When he began his testimony, Pistorius spoke in hushed tones, but as he spoke of his family, his dead mother, his career and his charity work, he became more confident.
As a young boy, Pistorius witnessed his mother sleeping with a handgun underneath her pillow.
And as a grown man, he slept with his own gun underneath his bed – the same 9mm pistol he used to shoot his girlfriend Steenkamp.
It was this fear of violent crime that built up his paranoia. Cars followed him on several occasions and there was an attempted hijacking of his older brother Carl. An aunt’s house was ransacked by housebreakers and a neighbour called to tell him his house had been broken into while he was in Manchester, England. He witnessed an incident where a taxi driver was attacked and left bleeding profusely after his head was smashed with rocks.
“Everyone in South Africa has been exposed to crime,” he testified.
Nowadays, it is not the crime that keeps him awake at night, it is the “smell of blood”.
Having resolved never to touch a gun again, he has taken refuge in a cocktail of antidepressants and sleeping pills.
A security guard keeps watch outside his house at night.
The nightmares at one point got so bad that he called his sister Aimee “to come over”.
He took refuge in a closet while waiting for her.
Blowing his nose, an emotional Pistorius said: “I have terrible nightmares about things that happened that night.
“When I wake up I can smell blood. I wake up terrified. I always wake up in a complete state of terror… to a point where I would rather not sleep.”
Pistorius said he did not sleep for weeks on end after the incident and had lost a lot of weight.
“I can’t remember when, but I think it was the beginning of this year, when I woke up in a panic. I was terrified and could not calm myself down, so I climbed into a cupboard and phoned my sister to come and sit with me.”
But Pistorius said: “I never want to handle a firearm again in my life, so at night I’ve got a security guard stationed outside the door.
“In April (last year), with the help of my family I was put on sleeping pills,” the Paralympian said softly, his voice cracking.
Asked by his advocate, Barry Roux SC, if he had managed to sleep on Sunday night, he said “no”.
It was shortly after noon, at exactly 12.04pm when the frail-looking Pistorius walked into the witness stand from the dock in which he had been sitting since his trial started on March 3.
“You said there was something you wanted to tell the court?” asked Roux.
His eyes filled with tears, Pistorius faced the public gallery in the direction of June Steenkamp, the mother of the woman he shot through a locked bathroom door on Valentine’s day last year.
“If I may just start off by tendering an apology: Mrs Steenkamp, I’d like to apologise,” he said in a quivering voice.
In between sobs, he continued: “There hasn’t been a moment since this tragedy happened that I haven’t thought about your family.
“When I wake up you are the first people I think of and pray for. I can’t imagine the pain, emptiness and sorrow I caused your family… I was simply trying to protect Reeva.
“I can promise when she went to bed that night she felt loved. I tried to put my thoughts on paper, but no words would ever suffice.”
So inaudible at times was Pistorius that Judge Thokozile Masipa had to urge him to speak up.
While Steenkamp’s life ended tragically after he shot her, believing she was an intruder, he told the court she went to bed a loved woman on the night of February 13 last year.
He said he had struggled “with my faith” when his mother died, even dabbling in dagga at the age of 15.
“She was a fantastic parent,” he told the court of a woman who had taught him his disability should not limit him.
And while he tried to restore his relationship with God between 2011 and 2012, it was his meeting with Steenkamp that got him to draw closer to God.
Meeting Steenkamp, he said, was a blessing. Pistorius spoke about how deeply religious he was and how fortunate he was to meet a partner who was also a Christian.
“I have put a lot of faith in the Lord to get where I wanted to be and when I met Reeva, I think it was just a blessing. I always wanted a partner who was a Christian. She was a very strong Christian. She would pray for me at night and she would pray about my training – all the small things.
“Her religion is the thing that got me through this last year,” a sobbing Pistorius testified.
He is expected back on the stand on Tuesday to continue giving evidence.