Pistorius is a beneficiary of privilege
Far too often power and money have played an undue influence in tipping the scales of justice, writes Rapule Tabane.
We are reaching saturation point with media coverage of the Oscar Pistorius case, but I feel it would be an injustice if we did not account for the role of class and race in this saga, which has been taking place since last week. My argument, essentially, is that Pistorius has been treated with kid gloves, both by state authorities and the media, because he is a privileged, rich, white South African.
Last Thursday morning was hectic as we journalists prepared to cover President Jacob Zuma's State of the Nation address. I was not paying much attention to the radio or the TV. But, in between thoughts about the president's speech, I got the news from the radio that Pistorius had shot his girlfriend accidentally, mistaking her for an intruder – and would face the standard culpable homicide charge.
It was a tragic accident, and our hearts went out to both Pistorius and his family, as well as that of his dead girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
The background narrative provided was that South Africa is such a violence-ridden society, and the chances of being attacked by a robber in your house so high, that this wasn't too strange.
This was the story I lived with until Thursday afternoon, when the police started disclosing more information: the neighbours had heard a commotion before the shooting, Pistorius had actually been arrested and he was being charged with murder. I felt, then, that I had been lied to the whole day – and so had many other millions of South Africans.
The explanation was that the reporters working on the Pistorius saga were basing their stories on the information they heard in the morning, but I still I felt that their culpability in swallowing that "intruder" line also reflected their basic assumptions about who was capable of committing a crime and who was not. They could not imagine Pistorius being capable of murder.
I am being careful here, because Pistorius has not been found guilty. From his bail application, however, and his defence, as presented by his lawyer in court later in the week, it is not disputed that Pistorius shot Steenkamp.
We South Africans tend to have in our minds clear, set notions of what a killer looks like, a perfect picture of what represents a typically corrupt businessperson, as well as, on the other hand, the untainted images of those incapable of crime.
Stereotypes about what a criminal looks like transcend South Africa's borders – each country has its own version. I want to argue, however, that in South Africa the history of apartheid and colonialism, which characterised black people as uncivilised savages incapable of sophistication, deepens such stereotyped perceptions.
Although 18 years of ANC rule have helped to dissipate fears that things would fall apart, anarchy would be unleashed and the economy would be destroyed (as happened "north of the Limpopo" under black governments), no doubt there are still deeply racialised outlooks. We are all part of this society and no amount of wringing of hands will deny this reality.
Pistorius is indeed privileged, what with a big-name spin doctor flying out from London to help to salvage his diminishing reputation, a specially hired pathologist and sympathetic headlines screaming "Prayers for Oscar".
His background means that he got special treatment, even from the police: they could not bear to put him in the back of a police van, which should be standard practice for anyone who is arrested. It also means that, after his arrest, he did not have to spend time in a prison. Instead, he was detained at a police station where, it was reported, family members came to visit and gave him food. I do not need to dwell here on the horrors of our prisons, which thousands of our young men have to endure daily, and which Pistorius was spared.
Undoubtedly he is – or was, until last week – an international icon. Understandably, interest in the case both locally and internationally was, and is, immense, so it was to be expected that somewhere along the line there would be some deviation from standard practice.
And it is not Pistorius's fault that some of us in the media would rather blame the government for high levels of crime than scrutinise his behaviour. And Pistorius is not responsible for the authorities affording him special care.
All our love for – and prejudice against – Pistorius will hopefully not influence how justice is dispensed. The presiding magistrate, Desmond Nair, has been courteous to him, but only the merits of the case should determine the eventual outcome. Far too often in South Africa we have seen cases in which money and good lawyers can tip the scales of justice.
A case that comes to mind is that of Mark Scott-Crossley who, along with some of his workers, fed the body of an employee to lions in Hoedspruit in 2004. He was released after serving only three years, whereas his employee, Simon Mathebula, is still rotting away, serving a life sentence.
Mathebula did not have the financial resources to appeal his sentence, but the monied Scott-Crossley fought all the way to the Supreme Court of Appeal, where his murder conviction was eventually overturned because the court held he had been "dragooned" by his workers to behave as he did.
At the time of his release, Cosatu commented that those who were rich and white received preferential treatment.
We hope not to travel that road again, not in the Pistorius case and not in any other, but there is no question that race and class in this country are still considerable protection from the worst of what society can throw at you.