Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Pistorius: High noon at not-OK corral

The pop philosopher Alain de Botton recently tweeted this aphorism: "The more dignity is widely and freely available in a society, the less people want to be famous." If he's right, it stands to reason that South African society is unusually craven to the altar of celebrity. We imagine fame as a transcendent plane of life, triumphantly free of madness and trauma.

But even after that illusion is punctured by an event like the killing of Reeva Steenkamp, it's hard to discard the lens of fame. The next impulse is to see her death as a morality tale about the spiritual risk of success – to see Oscar Pistorius as a modern Icarus whose celebrity fed his supposed madness or malevolence.

When he accidentally fired a friend's gun at the floor in a fancy restaurant, the owners happily accepted his apology. Nobody told the press. Nobody close to Pistorius warned him that he might be pathologically gun-obsessed, or if they did, they failed to convince him to seek help. He was rich, adored, untouchable. Only foreign journalists, unaccustomed to the paranoid shadows of South African culture, spotted the signs of what might be a simmering mental illness: the claims of wild speeding, the insomniac shooting sessions, the blunt weapons at the ready.

But Pistorius is entirely one of us. His aggression and fear are a reverberation of South African history – no matter who he thought he was allegedly killing when he fired four bullets through a bathroom door. Because, 18 years after liberation, we remain a culture whose masculine codes are steeped in the logic of force: in the expectation of force, and the urge to exercise it. We're not alone in this pathology, but we've got it bad.


Pistorius: South Africa bears and breeds these men
Oscar Pistorius: Media masters work to win two trials
Gender violence: Creating a new normal for South Africa's men

Follow our livebog here

The force code doesn't only manifest itself in direct violence and not only men enact it. It's played out in the thoughtless recklessness that roams our roads; far more people are killed in road accidents than murdered. The code is also enacted in the quiet violence of bureaucratic failure. When Limpopo schoolchildren don't receive textbooks, it's not merely an organic administrative accident: it's the product of a chain of destructive individual impulses, whether corrupt or merely negligent.

The rampant ostentation of Pis­torius and so many rich South Afri­cans – white and black – is also a facet of the force code: the flaunting of grotesque luxury in this time and place is a form of psychic violence against the poor. Ditto all the wasteful government spending, the fronting and tenderpreneurship. Everywhere you look, "fuck you" impulses are being acted on.

In our lived experience, all these forms of aggression are leavened by a powerful counterforce: the human warmth that saturates South African life. But kindness and affection can't break the force code. Only the rigorous application and refinement of another potent code – the law – will do that. It will take a long, long time.

But if justice is done in this trial, the force code will retreat a little.

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Carlos Amato
Carlos Amato is an editorial cartoonist, writer and illustrator living in Johannesburg, with a focus on sport, culture and politics. He has degrees in literature and animation, used to edit the ‘Sunday Times Lifestyle’ magazine and is the author of ‘Wayde van Niekerk: Road to Glory’ (Jonathan Ball, 2018).

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

Family wants clarity on SANDF soldier killed in friendly fire...

Corporal Simanga Khuselo join the peacekeeping mission in the DRC to save money to build his family a home

SA soldiers have been fighting in a distant land for...

Troops were sent to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001 as part of the UN peacekeeping mission that became an offensive against rebels

More top stories

Despite inflation risks, the monetary policy committee keeps rates on...

Inflation rose well beyond the Reserve Bank’s midpoint target in August

Sasol commits to net zero ambition by 2050, triples 2030...

But Sasol shouldn’t rely on natural gas a transition fuel, say civil society organisations

ActionSA wants pro-poor, business-friendly metros

Branding itself as a corruption busting party, ActionSA said it will establish dedicated independent forensics units in each of its municipalities, with the mandate to investigate all potential corrupt activities

‘We are focused on the local government elections,’ ANC tells...

The organisation has sent another letter to staff members saying that salaries for July, August and September will not be paid on 25 September

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…