at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
Johannesburg – When I first met Oscar Pistorius, he wasn’t sure of me. It was in the mixed zone at the Athens Olympic Stadium during the Paralympics, where the athletes have to walk a gauntlet of journalists, beginning with television before looping through the maze to the print journalists, who are at the bottom of the food chain.
Bronwyn Roets, the media liaison of the team, shepherded him towards where the small contingent of South African journalists waited, past the rest of the world’s media. They ran to get a position behind us, to catch a quote. Pistorius leant on the fence, his carbon-fibre blades are not made to stand still and his balance was a little iffy. He bounced from foot to foot. He spoke well. Then later he called Vata Ngobeni, now the sports editor of the Pretoria News, to ask about this “Kevin” guy he’d spoken to. Ngobeni said I was okay, and that was enough for Pistorius. At every race he would make a beeline to where I stood. If the rest of the world wanted to speak to him, they’d have to wait until he had spoken to the South Africans first.
I got to know Pistorius well. We became friends. We chatted often. It almost became difficult to interview him as I knew what he was going to say. I’d heard it before, but somehow he would manage to come up with a new line, a different angle to the story and the piece would write itself. At a party held for the Paralympians at Sun City in 2004, I got a call from a tipsy Pistorius. He had tried to get into Trader’s Horn, the bar where we were all meeting for the after party. He couldn’t get in as he wasn’t 23. I made a call, and a Sun International official swept us into the bar, where Pistorius and I got drunk. David O’Sullivan, of Talk Radio 702, and I would tell the joke that we got him “legless” for the first time in his life. Pistorius laughed when we told him, he’d heard it too many times before. Pull the other one. So to speak.
That was the Oscar I knew. He was a boy who grew into a man as I watched, covering him over three Paralympics and one Olympic Games. He went from a teenager with braces on his teeth to a man with a beautiful girl on his arm. The Oscar I knew was the one who called me after my father passed away suddenly on Christmas morning in 2010. He lived in Pretoria East. I lived in the East Rand. I was struggling with my father’s death, feeling the burden of guilt that had settled on me because we had not spoken in several years. We were not close. Oscar was not close to his father. He told me that if I needed someone to talk to, he could be at my house in 40 minutes. That was the Oscar I knew.
The Oscar I knew came to The Star’s offices in his little Smart car after we had reported about a bus accident in which schoolchildren had lost limbs. The Oscar I knew BBMed me late at night in 2011 to tell me that he had the “ ‘A’ time in the bag”. He’d qualified for the world championships, and we stayed up until the wee hours having a furious chat about what would happen next and whether I would be in Korea for the paper.
The Oscar I knew spent two hours talking to the media in the mixed zone in the London Olympics, then sought me out and hugged me. He asked me whether I’d got over the flu that I’d picked up. The Oscar I knew told me he would ask the South African team doctor for meds for me if it didn’t clear up. The Oscar I knew sent me a copy of the strict diet, the one that had helped him shed almost 13kg and turn him from a chubby runner into a lean sprinter. The Oscar I knew cried when his dog, Capone, a Jack Russell, was killed in a fight with his other dogs at his Silver Woods home. I’d met Capone, and he’d decided that my lap was much more comfortable than Oscar’s. The Oscar I knew made me lunch that day I met Capone at his house. It was a big house, but not massive. Hardly the mansion it is made out to be.
We sat at the large table, which could easily seat 20, where he said he would have family over every Sunday. He made me chicken soup with chickpeas and one slice of high-fibre bread. “You’ll have to eat what I eat,” he laughed. The Oscar I knew told me to feel free to walk around the house with photographer, Debbie Yazbek, who had been a colleague at The Star. We had both been asked by a British publication to do a piece on Oscar in the build-up to the Olympics in 2011. We needed colour and background. We walked into his bedroom, which was upstairs. Debbie spotted the pistol first. It was beside the bed, the barrel pointed towards us. It was a shock. I hate guns. I will not have one. In the army I was a good shot. I’d felt the surge of power that comes from firing a 9mm and an R5 automatic rifle on a range. It was addictive. Like the need for a drink. I know addiction. I have family and friends who flirt with it and dive into it. The addiction of firing a gun can be the worst of all.
I asked Oscar about it when we went downstairs, and the Oscar I knew told me that you “never know”. That loaded 9mm pistol was not the Oscar I know. I do not know if it is the weapon that took the life of Reeva Steenkamp. I suspect it is. It is all I have been able to think off since Thursday morning. The gun in the bedroom. The Oscar I knew would not kill a beautiful girl. That gun was not the Oscar I know. The Oscar I knew was not sure of me in Athens in 2004. Now I am not sure I ever knew him at all. – The Star