/ 22 February 2013

Pistorius: High noon at not-OK corral

Oscar Pistorius poses with his gold medal after winning the men's 400m final during the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
Oscar Pistorius poses with his gold medal after winning the men's 400m final during the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

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.


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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.