Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp. File photo: Frennie Shivambu

Johannesburg - The trial of double-amputee Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius on charges of premeditated murder will be about more than the shooting of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

The widely publicised case against the athlete has sparked concern over SA's image, Kelly Phelps, law professor at Cape Town University, said. “Pistorius is an icon of the country, a kind of representative of South Africa, a symbol of South African history and diversity.”

His trial is also expected to reignite domestic debate on issues such as gender violence, gun control and the power of money in court cases. It is also likely to cast high crime rates - police reported an average of 45 murders a day last year - back in the spotlight. Pistorius, 27, was born without calf bones and his legs were amputated below the knee before his first birthday.

But he soared to fame on the track, becoming the first amputee to compete against able-bodied athletes at the 2012 London Olympics. His carbon-fibre prostheses earned him the nickname Blade Runner. His achievements and tenacity were admired by black and white South Africans alike.

His arrest on February 14, 2013, on suspicion of murder drew public shock and disbelief. Police had been called to the sprinter's upmarket high-security home in Pretoria. Pistorius told investigators he had shot Steenkamp mistakenly, thinking she was an intruder. He said the two had spent a blissful evening together before he heard noise coming from the bathroom and, thinking a burglar had entered, grabbed a gun, moved towards the door on his stumps and opened fire.

Prosecutors say Pistorius fired four shots through the bathroom door, knowing that Steenkamp was inside. The 29-year-old model and law graduate was hit in the head, hip and elbow. More than 100 witnesses are due to testify in what is expected to be a three-week trial.

Prosecutors are expected to call witnesses who would testify the couple had been arguing before the shooting. Pistorius fell from grace after the shooting, with sponsorships withdrawn and reports portraying a man with a foul temper, an obsession with security and a love for guns.

The athlete is to face additional charges in his trial over two separate gun-related incidents, in which he is alleged to have fired a gun through the sunroof of a car and discharged a firearm under a table in a restaurant. “For us South Africans, it is impossible to watch Oscar Pistorius run without wanting to break down and cry and shout with joy,” commentator Justice Malala wrote when Pistorius was arrested.

Phelps says the peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy “brought SA much appreciation and also foreign capital, which helped our economy to recover. So South Africans are very sensitive when it comes to their image in the world.

“Women's rights activists have adopted Steenkamp as a figurehead for their campaign against gender violence. A woman is killed by a partner every eight hours - double the rate of such murders in the United States, according to South Africa's Medical Research Council. Feminists welcomed the appointment of Thokozile Masipa as the trial judge. Masipa, who became the country's second black woman judge in 1998, has handed maximum sentences to two men convicted of violence against women.

The Women's League of the governing African National Congress has organised protests at the court and called on judges to be tough on Pistorius over gender violence, a stance that Phelps sees as “deeply inappropriate.”

“There is no evidence of this allegation against Pistorius,” the professor said. “Let us first find out what really happened.”

Sarah Nuttall, director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Wits University, believes Pistorius has a chance of obtaining a mild verdict, because he can afford the best lawyers. “There is a huge divide between the rich and the poor in the South African judicial system.”

“Rich people can pay their way out, while the poor feel so unprotected by the judiciary that they are increasingly setting up their own courts at informal settlements”, Nuttall said. - Sapa-dpa