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Vultures circle outside Oscar Pistorius’s courtroom

Something went terribly wrong, although what exactly it was will be contentious for the duration of what promises to be a drawn-out trial.

In the scenario prosecutors sketched in court on Tuesday, Oscar Pistorius decided to kill Reeva Steenkamp. Theories on why he could have reached that decision might be brought into evidence on Wednesday, when police are expected to offer some of their initial findings as part of the argument against Pistorius being granted bail. But whether it was a domestic argument, drugs, or a fit of rage is of passing concern in the bigger scheme of things. That a man could choose to do such violence to a woman close to him would speak eloquently of a society that needs to closely examine its construct of masculinity, among other things.

In Pistorius's version of events he was in such mortal fear, so haunted by the spectre of crime, so convinced of his own vulnerability, that he made a fatal mistake. That, too, bears thinking about; a society where even the rich and famous – cocooned inside multiple layers of security – can live in such dread has problems deeper than a high rate of crime.

In the margins, between those conflicting stories, lies many other debates South Africa has never adequately had with itself: gun control, bail and its conditions for serious crimes, the interaction between the media and the criminal justice system and our collective relationship with celebrities are all ripe for consideration.

The sheer magnitude of interest in the circumstances of the death of Steenkamp presents a singular opportunity to, at least, start considering these issues. That was how some journalists are consoling themselves for the part they were playing in the three-ring-circus that the matter became.

"Today we have truly become vultures," remarked one reporter outside the magistrate's court in Pretoria on Tuesday. Indeed, media houses, foreign and domestic, have been picking over the carcass of the story for new titbits to feed a seemingly insatiable appetite among readers, viewers and listeners, leading to record-breaking numbers of visitors to news websites over the past six days.

The hope, among at least some journalists, was that the appetite for gruesome or emotion-laden detail we share with audiences may morph into thoughtfulness and would ultimately change, redeeming both the media and society in the long run – with a vulture precursor.

Yet Tuesday showed that such introspection was an unlikely hope.

South Africans seemingly lost themselves to the nitty-gritty of the saga. On radio talk shows and online forums, battles raged between those who believed Pistorius is guilty and those who thought him innocent. New details were hotly debated: is it probable that he could shoot accurately sans prostheses? Was the cricket bat, in fact, covered in blood? Bigger issues, such as whether a negligent but innocent man was being subjected to judicial torture, or how Steenkamp's death relates to that of Anene Booysen, were the domain of plaintive, lone voices.

Tuesday also showed that looking to political leaders for direction in these matters was folly.

The hearing into bail was significant enough an event to attract – among celebrities, family members and an enormous media contingent – a sitting Cabinet minister. Lulu Xingwana, minister for women, children, and people with disabilities, sat in on part of the proceedings. Outside the media waited, eager to give her the platform to provide whatever insight or direction she saw fit.

What Xingwana saw fit was to join in with the group of 20-odd ANC Women's League demonstrators outside calling for Pistorius to "rot in jail". A Cabinet minister and an influential organ of South Africa's ruling party joined forces to pre-empt the court hearing going on inside and could offer nothing but platitudes for their motivation.

Other political leaders were missing in action on the day, involved in the debate around last week's State of the Nation address or making wild accusations about funding for the new Agang movement.

The one exception, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, had little to offer. In a statement he offered such wisdom as "no one is above the law" and that sporting heroes should not be "associated with acts of violence", sentiments on par with Xingwana's belief that saying "no to guns in homes" would make women and children feel safe in their homes.

With attention still firmly fixed on the story of Pistorius and Steenkamp this week – before a fickle public shifts to other fare – there is still a window for redemption. On Tuesday, however, all were vultures.

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Phillip De Wet
Guest Author

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