Tragic lesson of the Oscar Pistorius trial

The similarities between Oscar Pistorius’s trial and that of another rather controversial  Kenyan (some insist English) man, Thomas Cholmondeley, a great-grandson of British aristocrat Lord Hugh Delamere, are many – on the surface, at least.

Both men got messily entangled with the law after fatally shooting at intruders – perceived in the case of the South African star athlete, real in Cholmondeley’s. 

Their cases generated intense global attention, just a decibel less for Cholmondeley but still a huge draw with the British media from where his kin – Kenya’s most famous settler family – drew their roots. Indeed, Pistorius’s maternal lineage reportedly has geographical linkage to Kenya, through his great grandfather who was said to have been an emigrant to the east African country.

An ‘easy’ time
The two incident-prone men both had relatively easy and legal terms during trial: Pistorius was for all intents a free man and even managed to get into an altercation while on a night out. Cholmondeley’s three years on remand were also relatively luxurious by Kenyan standards: he had a cell all to himself, and could read assorted literature.

Their reactions to the deaths they caused were also eerily similar; they both called for help after shooting, including attempts to give first aid, actions that earned them some sympathy.

Both men also had charges of premeditated murder thrown out, but did not quite manage to shake off lesser counts of manslaughter and culpable homicide. They also came across as deeply remorseful while in court.

But there many similarities ended. Cholmondeley’s trial following his shooting of Robert Njoya, a black interloper who he said was poaching on the family’s vast estate, kicked up a lot of opprobrium in Kenya, where the case kicked up strong and very divisive sentiments around colonial land history grievances, privilege, wealth and race.

It was even more extraordinary given that Cholmondeley had earlier gotten off another murder charge for the May 2005 killing of a veteran game warden, again on family land, causing protests from his Maasai community that the vast  Delamere acreage – 50 000 to 100 000 acres depending on whom you listen to – was, many say, unjustly carved out from their ancestral lands.

White versus black
The case conjured up emotive images of a privileged white man hunting down blacks for sport. Add to it the greater land injustice issue, and black Kenyans scented, and demanded, blood.

One senior Maasai politician summed up the mood succinctly: “The Delameres have always treated Kenyans with contempt. They stole our land in the first place, and now they think we are part of the wildlife,” William ole Ntimama was quoted saying. 

Another minister claimed Njoya had died while searching for a “single meal in a vast ranch owned by a single family”. The state eventually dropped the case by invoking  nolle prosequi, sparking outrage and claims of two sets of laws – one for blacks and the other for whites (and allied blacks with power and lots of land).  

Pistorius case different
There have been few such historical polemics around Pistorius in South Africa, despite being a country battling many racial ghosts.

Pistorius, a white man, killed his white girlfriend. For most blacks, it was a mildly curious source of legal drama, but essentially, a case about “them”. The subtleties are still there in the background, a black judge was judging a white man, but it has been mainly a legal show. Also, because a verdict by a male judge would have been controversial anyway you looked at it, South African judicial authorities also rather thoughtfully took that possibility away. The Cholmondeley case was presided over by a black judge. 

The aspect of an athletic celebrity accused of a murder served to rope in the international media and make it a box office hit for the West, making sure every gory detail of the case was immortalised globally in live television.

The lessons are many. Justice must be seen to be done, not only done. The Pistorius case has been a smooth affair by African standards – the law has largely been seen to have followed a natural course, with no claims of official tampering. 

The Kenyan case was anything but. A manslaughter charge can attract up to a life term under the country’s law, but after  a three-year trial the judge handed down an eight month term, of which Cholmondeley served only five, leading to many more frothy calls to news stations.

By comparison the Pistorius case has taken 17 months from shooting to verdict.

Perception management is also important. The slick Pistorius PR team immediately clicked into gear, going on the offensive and largely staying ahead of the narrative. The Delamere team was by comparison abysmal, unintentionally feeding the sense of ire with innocuous comments about picnic baskets for their incarcerated man, and even having an elderly Maasai house servant on hand during court hearings.  

Had Pistorius gunned down his black girlfriend the outcome would have been ugly. A trial in South Africa would have been all but impossible.

S.M. Otieno case
If Cholmondeley had instead shot a white man few Kenyans would have had more than a passing interest in it, attributing it to the lingering lifestyle of the modern Happy Valley set — a reference to the hedonistic tendencies the area around the Delamere farm was known for during the colonial days. 

The same emotions are also in display in many countries in Africa, if a high profile murder involves people from difference ethnic communities. In fact it doesn’t need something as extreme as a murder. The most famous case in Kenya is the “S.M. Otieno case” from 1987. Otieno was a highflying and flamboyant Kenyan trial lawyer – from the Luo community in west Kenya. 

He was married to feisty Virginia Wambui Otieno, from the Kikuyu community in Central Kenya. The two groups have had a long and complex love-hate relationship. When Otieno died, his wife wanted him buried in Nairobi, as befitting the modern non-tribal figure he was. His Luo relatives said custom demanded that he be buried in the west near Lake Victoria, or else the spirits of the ancestors would be furious and torment them.

The matter went to court. Probably the longest lines ever seen for a trial used to form every day, and newspapers sold more copies than they ever had. In the end, as the New York Times put it, “Kenyan court rules tribe, not widow, can bury a lawyer”.

In all this, it is the conclusions that are likely to be most uncomfortable: If you must kill somebody in Africa, try to kill within your own race or tribe. Seriously. The African sense of kinship is more forgiving, but also very insular. The Pistorius trial, in that sense, was as African as it could ever get.

This article first appeared on

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