The focus on the Oscar Pistorius trial must teach us all that violence is endemic in our society and we have much to do to change that, writes Hamilton Wende.
The intense hype surrounding the Oscar Pistorius trial is providing an eerie global two-way mirror. First, and most obviously, for the world to view South Africa, but also, and less obviously, for South Africa to see its place in the world reflected back to us.
That Oscar is a South African had nothing to do with his global fame. He could have been from Iceland (where he was extremely popular) or Venezuela, Korea, or anywhere, for that matter.
His career was a mythical rise to fame and success that echoed loudly throughout the world. His triumph over extreme physical disability was a victory that transcended race, country or creed. His arc of success was the supreme human narrative, one that we all, whoever we are, long for – a complete transformation of our lives through our own efforts, despite fears and difficulties.
So when he shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, there always was going to be a tsunami of global interest that would descend on South Africa. Those who argue that it should not be so are largely correct in their view. It is a prurient, celebrity-driven spectacle that feeds on our worst instincts of curiosity, schadenfreude, violence and sex, but it is an unavoidable reality that the world is fascinated by Oscar and his fall.
That he shot Reeva may well have much to do with his being South African. We need to look closely at our gun-obsessed society, and at the fact that so many women in this country are victims of violence, especially at the hands of their partners. We need to address the fears and rage that lie beneath this behaviour. We need to find ways to heal the shattered inheritance of violence that 350 years of our history bequeathed to us.
But that is for us to do as South Africans – the rest of the world doesn’t care whether we do or not. In fact, as was so ludicrously illustrated by the famous American lawyer Alan Dershowitz recently, when he described South Africa as a “failed country”, many in the world don’t really believe that we can. They will revel for a while in the grotesqueries of the death of Reeva at the hands of their fallen idol and move on.
Alan Dershowitz’s statement was an extreme example of the ignorant and prejudiced understanding that many outsiders have of South Africa, but there is a clear and bitter truth for us to see hidden within the layers of its absurdity. Many observers now believe that with the death of Nelson Mandela, South Africa is losing its relevance and importance to the rest of the world.
We may angrily, and correctly, reject that view, but the fact remains that this is a growing worldwide narrative about our country.
Partly, this is a racist and culturally limited narrative. The end of white rule and death of Nelson Mandela, the icon of reconciliation, have revealed the subconscious, and sometimes overt, belief that a democratic government dominated largely by the votes and wishes of a black electorate is doomed to fail.
It is also partly the flipside of Mandela’s enormous legacy, the notion that there is nothing else to fill the vastness of his presence. There was a sense among many that he was the only reason South Africa succeeded in its transition, and that only he could hold this fractured country together.
We know this is not true, but the perception and the present, inescapable, reality of growing corruption in government does nothing to correct that world view. Violent service delivery protests, growing inequality, and our very high rates of murder, rape and robbery do nothing for South Africa’s image.
The violence of Reeva’s death and now the salaciousness of the trial of Pistorius feeds into this narrative of South Africa, whether we like it or not. Sadly, no one can take away the tragedy of Reeva’s death. Oscar’s trial is a passing show. In fact, the South African justice system is coming out looking good from it. Undoubtedly, it is a unique display of wealth and the legal talent that money can buy.
Nonetheless, the openness of the justice system when faced with this juggernaut that is the international enthrallment with Oscar and his fate has been laudable and is something we as South Africans should be keenly aware of.
In the end, though, the Oscar show is not really about us and our realities, but about how the world sees us, or perhaps even more crucially, how they want to see us. Being South African had little or nothing to do with the way Oscar was honoured globally for his success, but in his terrible failure they find much to do with his being South African.
Can we deny that entirely? That is the question we must ask ourselves, and keep asking after the circus of world attention around his trial has gone.
We are not, and never will be, a failed country, but the roots of Reeva’s killing do lie partly in the systemic failure by no one but ourselves to change the violence in our society. Working to change that is the way to honour her legacy.